The death and entombment of Christ was often depicted by terracotta sculptors, who focused on the agonizing sadness of the mourners, here the Virgin to the left of Christ and Saint John on the right. The artist’s working of the clay heightens this agitation. The grooves of the textiles, hair, skin, and fingers mingle with the painted streaks of tears and blood to create an overall texture.
This stylized rendering of emotion is very different from the calm grace of Gardner's Virgin and Child sculpture by Matteo Civitali, which was made at around the same time.
Isabella Gardner bought this sculpture in 1897 as the work of Bartolomeo Bellano. It was shipped to Boston in three pieces sent from different ports to avoid the suspicions of customs officers in both Italy and the U.S. Gardner did not actually see the sculpture until four years later when she unpacked it to install in her museum. It has recently been discovered that this is a work by Giovanni de Fondulis, a sculptor active in Padua.
Between 2007 and 2010, Gardner conservators undertook detailed study and conservation of three of the Gardner’s terracotta sculptures: Virgin Adoring the Child, Matteo Civitali, ca. 1480; Bust of St. John the Baptist, Benedetto da Maiano, ca. 1480; and Entombment of Christ, Giovanni Minelli (recently reattributed to Giovanni de Fondulis), ca. 1483-87, in addition to thirteen 19th-century paintings in the Gardner Museum’s collection. Funded by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, this work focused on the analysis of paint and elemental constituents of the terracotta as well as treatment, which provided new insights into the sculptures’ composition and condition. For example, research revealed that the works by Civitali and de Fondulis preserve much of their original 15th-century paint, while Benedetto da Maiano’s Bust of St. John the Baptist has been over-painted several times—including once with a thick layer of black paint mixed with a combination of ground copper and brass metal leaf that was applied to make it appear as though the bust was made of bronze. Analysis also revealed new information about the method of modeling the figures, which were all done by hand as indicated by the visible took marks, the selective massing of the clay, the hollowed out walls with uniform thickness, and the individual expressiveness of the figures. Methods of evaluation focused on X-radiography, paint cross-sections, Scanning Electron Microscopy-Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), Raman spectroscopy, thermoluminescence, and other methods of evaluation conducted by the Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. These new discoveries contributed to the 2010 exhibition, Modeling Devotion: Terracotta Sculptures of the Italian Renaissance, which highlighted the highly emotive and expressive qualities of these artworks, their technique and condition, and even fakes and forgeries created in the late 19th century to fuel a growing market.
In addition to in-depth technical analysis, treatment, and photographic documentation of the de Fondulis, conservators completed comparative study analysis of the artwork in Padua, Italy. A notable finding included the reattribution of this work to the previously obscure Renaissance Paduan sculptor Giovanni de Fondulis. Specializing in highly emotive painted terracottas, de Fondulis’ importance has only recently been reconstructed by scholars. This sculpture is one of only twenty known examples of de Fondulis’ work. The treatment of this sculpture focused primarily on consolidation of the paint/ground layers and surface cleaning. The sculpture was conserved in 1936 at the Gardner in an effort to consolidate flaking paint. The method used was a wax/resin mixture that was melted together and then applied to the painted surface. Upon cooling, excess consolidant was wiped away with solvents. Unfortunately, this treatment was no longer effective and the wax/resin material had actually become quite dark and yellowed with age. The soft wax surface had also accumulated and retained a significant amount of dirt and dust. Therefore, the recent conservation treatment focused on locally consolidating the paint and ground layers and to remove the discolored residual wax/rein from the paint surface. Areas of paint loss exposing bare terracotta were isolated with a reversible resin and in-painted to blend with adjacent surfaces.