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Unveiling the Stories of Historic Treasures

How can one distinguish an authentic dress of Empress Elisabeth from an imitation? How can be ensured that future generations are still able to admire ancient carriages in all their glory? At the Imperial Carriage Museum in Vienna, conservators dedicate their time to collecting and preserving historic pieces and make visitors feel they are stepping back in time. 

Matthias Manzini’s gaze wanders slowly over the carriage in front of him. His eyes sparkle at the sight of the matt black chassis with its golden embellishments and its great wooden wheels. Which year does this equipage date back to and who has been travelling in it? A new piece in the museum collection is always very exciting and gives rise to a lot of questions.  

Manzini’s job as a conservator is to reveal the stories behind the pieces and to protect them from decay. Pointing to the to the small cracks and fissures that are visible on the pointed surface of the carriage, Manzini explainsYou can see right away that the carriage has been painted over from the heavy craquelure on its surface.  

The conservator found his passion for conservation in high school during an internship that his art teacher recommended to him. It fascinated him so much, that to this date, he is still enjoying the work that goes into preserving carriages. Two spotlights illuminate the area where Manzini is working with scalpelcotton swaps and an incredible amount of patience to remove layer after layer of paint to reveal the vehicle’s original looks. “We are using solvents and mechanical removal techniques to expose the original looks of a carriage “, he explains. This procedure takes great diligence, focus and the patience of a saint. Exposing the coat of arms took him four weeks but the conservator gets rewarded with answers to his questions. The history lover found out that the carriage he is currently working on, was built in Budapest in 1895 and once belonged to the Emperor Franz Joseph I.  

On the hunt for hidden gems

Prior to the lengthy procedure of restauration, the carriage undergoes an extensive examination and an inventory is carried out. Manzini and his colleagues are examining samples of material under a microscope to create a restoration plan and determine what consequences may be expected as a result from an intervention. 

Matthias Manzini

“When people ask me what it’s like to restore a carriage, I tell them it’s like scrubbing a ship’s deck with a toothbrush.”

However, the hard work pays off because sometimes, he stumbles across hidden gems. Is there a better reward than uncovering not only one but three coats of arms when removing color pigments from the carriage? Thanks to his extensive historic knowledge, Manzini can explain how it could come to his surprise revelation of three crowns on the carriage: The reason for the multiple layers of paint on the carriage is that the equipage was not only used during the times of the Emperor Franz Joseph I., but it changed hands multiple times and continued to be driven in the republic. When the monarchy came to an end and the carriage was taken over by another owner, the imperial decoration had to be covered up and the vehicle got embellished with a new coat of arms. 

A combination of science and craftsmanship

Michaela Morelli, a colleague of Manzini, is a textile conservator at the Imperial Carriage Museum. Her work focuses on the museum’s Court Robes and Uniforms collection. Assessing items of clothing that are claimed to stem from Empress Elisabeth’s wardrobe – also known as Sisi – is just one example how she spends her workday. It’s not easy to tell whether an item is an original or a fake. With a twinkle in her eye, Morelli points at a pretty chenille dress and explains that it was adjusted for a different, later wearer – one of the Empress’s nieces. With the help of light microscope the textile conservator is analyzing fibers, assessing the condition of fabrics by age, and documenting any damage caused, for example, by moths. 

Sisi’s wedding train is one of the few surviving items of the Empress’s clothing.
Sisi’s wedding train is one of the few surviving items of the Empress’s clothing.

“As a conservator, you use both your head and your hands,” explains Morelli. In order to preserve art and heritage artifacts, it requires science and craftmanship. Good conservators need practical skills, artistic sensitivity, theoretical knowledge concerning the fields of art and culture, and technical know-how. They need to be able to identify the age of an object and trace its history. And on top of that, they need a solid expert understanding of chemistry, physics, and microbiology. The scientific background is vital to identify age, trace history and to distinguish authentic finds from imitations. Practical skills and artistic sensitivity are then needed when it comes to the actual restauration process. 

Just like Manzini, Morelli stumbled on her passion for preserving art by coincidence.  The former student of the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts crossed path with a textile conservator on a bus ride and got offered a trial internship. She found her passion for preloved dresses and robes and made the decision to dedicate her live to preserving them for future generations.

Tools to unveil treasures of times long past 

On their mission of counteracting the decay of historic finds, the conservators are equipped with microscopes that enable them to appreciate even the smallest details of historic finds.  

Textiles, varnish, wood, and metal all require very different analysis and treatment methods. Manzini uses UV light or stereoscopic grazing light to view the layers of the craquelure-covered paint surface. Textile fibers are best analyzed using the polarization contrast on a light microscope. 

Material samples of for instance the outer carriage body, are analyzed under a scanning electron microscope. The EDX detector determines the roentgen radiation which the sample of just a few micrometers emits and offers insights on chemical compositions. Ultimately, this procedure allows conservators to identify the multiple layers of a sample.  

This information is crucial for Manzini as he can base his decision on how to approach the conservation process on the results that he gets from the lab. For the conservation itself, he uses amongst others a ZEISS SteREO Discovery.V8 stereo microscope which is magnifying details and pointing light at the area he is working on. 

The combination of suited tools and the unique skillset are a vitality for Manzini and his colleagues when preserving one of the most important collections worldwide. Thanks to the meaningful work of the conservation team, visitors of the Imperial Carriage Museum in Vienna can admire the over 30,000 unique and irreplaceable treasures of the past! 

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