The challenge of dismantling an eighteenth-century marionette theatre


Conservation & Collections Management
March 17, 2021

by Dr Nigel Bamforth, Senior Furniture Conservator

In 2020 work began to assess and move 30,000 objects in preparation for the Museum of Childhood refurbishment programme. This included assessing the logistics for the removal of a marionette theatre, including Technical Services’ recommendation for dismantling, packing and transporting the theatre offsite for temporary storage.

The marionette theatre (W.31-1924), made in Italy about 1734, was possibly from a Venetian Palazzo (Figure 1). The theatre is constructed of carved and raw wood and the proscenium (the part of a theatre stage in front of the curtain) is painted and gilded with applied carved decorative elements. The current blue and gold decorative surface dates from 1984 and replicates the original scheme. Within the proscenium are three wings supporting each side of the stage and they are painted with both interior domestic scenes and architectural landscapes. Original textile-covered pine boards to the sides and above the proscenium support the textile swags and tails that are hung within the proscenium opening.

Figure 1. Marionettes in the theatre © Victoria and Albert Museum

Historically the presence of the strung puppet is attested to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and by the eighteenth century they were installed into family mansions and piazzas (a public square or marketplace). Venice in the eighteenth century was the city in which the marionette was very popular. By the late sixteenth century all marionettes operated by wire and strings were termed burattini. The tetro di figura (puppet theatre) presented puppet shows, initially for the aristocratic public performing alltypes of drama from Shakespeare to opera and musical renditions, e.g. il mondo della Luna (The World of the Moon) set to music by Franz Joseph Haydn.1

Due to the scale and logistics of moving this object, thorough assessments were conducted in September 2020, with conservators and technicians entering inside the theatre to understand the framework and document original historic and more recent materials. Work commenced in December 2020 to remove the surrounding glass case from the theatre. Due to its large size (4270cm h x 4110cm w x 1840cm d) and age, specialist glaziers were employed for this. We were then able to fully gain access to the object and remove the marionettes and furniture props from the stage.

The priority was to remove the cartouche and applied top decoration of carved grapes and foliage as well as the urns and coat of arms to eliminate any vibration that might dislodge them. Two single-width mobile scaffold towers with platforms were employed to access the top (Figure 2). The pair of urns was secured in place with a screw on each end of the proscenium top corners; the gilded swags, foliage and grapes hooked onto the central cartouche and urns; and the cartouche was held in place with one screw. All were easy to remove.

Figure 2. Scaffold towers in place to remove cartouche and swags (Photography by V & A Technical Services © Victoria and Albert Museum)

The internal side wings were removed to give access to a modern painted canvas backdrop, which had been stapled to a batten. The wings themselves were held in place by dowels to a frame at the top and rebates at the bottom, so they could be lifted out (Figure 3). Once removed, the canvas backdrop could then be lifted free from the theatre wall fixing and stage, and ready for withdrawing the stapled batten prior to rolling on a tube with Tyvek. In future the backdrop will be hung in a safer way with Velcro attached to the top hanging. Historic textiles glued and stapled onto the vertical and horizontal boards backing the proscenium were held in place with screws. Fronting these were the damask patched and stapled swags and tails that hooked in place with a metal plate.

Figure 3. The wings supported by dowels (Photography by V & A Technical Services © Victoria and Albert Museum)

The proscenium construction is a Proper Right and Proper Left pilaster supporting the central proscenium with its gilded decorative element. The pilasters were reinforced with vertical timbers terminating at plinth level. These were removed together with old and obsolete brass wiring casing for electrical wiring that had been disconnected many years previously, possibly being a relic from the time when the object was acquired and lit by the Museum. The central proscenium’s carved and gilded three-dimensional elements were held in place with dowels. Initially it was hoped to remove these for safe packing but this would have caused damage to the surrounding surfaces and so were left in situ. The original intention was to separate the pilasters from the upper part, so tests were carried out to ascertain the feasibility of this so that packing and transport would be less demanding.

Figure 4. Detail of construction joint between pilasters and proscenium upper section (Photography by V & A Technical Services © Victoria and Albert Museum)

Approximately 50mm of filling material was removed at the joint between the pilasters and the upper section but due to the density of the filler, which resembled concrete, it would require intrusive action employing a chisel (Figure 4). As stress and damage might occur to the surrounding areas, it was decided to proceed without attempting to separate the joints. It was agreed that the safest option would be to lift these remaining sections off the plinth in one piece, so a vertical frame would be required to support this part of the object for transport and storage (Figure 5). Mechanical lifting gear was employed by the technicians and working together with the conservators, the removal was successfully achieved, guiding the pilaster tenons free of the base plinth.

Figure 5. Deconstructed theatre in preparation for mechanical lift (Photography by V & A Technical Services © Victoria and Albert Museum)

Once removed, the marbled plinth containing inset painted panels was moved on pallets ready for transport and soft wrapped, as were the other large theatre elements. The swags, cartouche and urns were packed in Euro crates. With careful planning from technicians and conservators, the theatre was safely dismantled and ready for storage until the Museum is ready to receive it back.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Kay Saunders, Project Conservator Objects (Museum of Childhood), and Tim Flannery, Museum Technician, for their assistance in dismantling this object.

References

  1. Sammartano, Antionetta. “Italy”. World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts, 2010, https://wepa.unima.org/en/italy/. Accessed 18 January 2021.
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