Conserving artworks after the Beirut blast

Conservation work is being carried out on a painting of Hercules and Omphale, recently attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi, that was damaged during the massive explosion in 2020 in Beirut.

The massive explosion in 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon, killed more than 200 people, injured thousands more, and destroyed homes in the city. Among the properties damaged was the 19th-century Sursock Palace, along with an anonymous painting of Hercules and Omphale that was in its collection.

Ulrich Birkmaier cleaning the painting surface of Hercules and Omphale, recently attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi. IMAGE: Cassia Davis © 2022 J Paul Getty Trust

Writing in Apollo magazine after the blast and presenting his research at a conference in April 2021, art historian Gregory Buchakjian has attributed this work to Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1654). The recently rediscovered work is now being conserved at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Ulrich Birkmaier, senior conservator of paintings at the Getty Museum, said, ‘The devastation this painting experienced is the most serious I have ever seen, with a staggering amount of tears and paint loss.’

Artemisia Gentileschi was unusual among women artists of the 17th century in taking on large-scale, complex history paintings like Hercules and Omphale, which allowed her to address ideas concerning power and gender roles. In the Greek myth, Hercules is sent to Omphale, Queen of Lydia, to serve as her slave for a year, as punishment for killing the son of the King of Oechalia. He is forced to do women’s work, such as assisting with Omphale’s spinning, as in this painting, which is thought to have been produced in Naples after 1630.

When the work is completed (which is expected to be around the end of 2023), the painting will go on view at the Getty Center, before returning to Sursock Palace, where restoration work is under way.

Among the other conservation work taking place after the explosion was a project between the British Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University in Beirut (AUB), which started in 2021. A case in the AUB was knocked over by the blast, shattering 72 glass vessels from the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods within it (two others were unscathed). A group of 18 vessels have been pieced back together from tiny fragments in Beirut. Eight more were sent to the British Museum in London, where they temporarily went on display in the summer of 2022 after they were restored. Researchers at the British Museum were able to analyse the internal surfaces of the vessels, finding that although none of them were originally coloured, some contained small amounts of elements associated with coloured or opacified glass that hint that they were manufactured with recycled glass. The restored vessels will return to Beirut in January 2023.