Water damage leads to revelation

3 min read

While it could never be considered a good thing when rare library materials suffer water damage, in the case of nearly a dozen French ballet drawings from the early 17th century, it proved to be illuminating.

Considered one of the great treasures of the Harvard Theatre Collection, the suite of drawings made around 1625 by Daniel Rabel for the court of Louis XIII depict “la Grand bal de la Douairière de Billebahaut” (Ballet of the Dowager of Balbao’s Grand Ball). They were among hundreds of items damaged in a 2008 flooding incident in Pusey Library, and were subsequently sent to the Weissman Preservation Center for treatment.

At the Weissman Center, reversing the damage to the drawings was the work of Christopher Sokolowski, a paper conservator who has examined and treated many works like the Rabel drawings in the course of his education and career. Sokolowski earned a master’s degree in art conservation from the Winterthur/University of Delaware program and a master’s degree in art history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and has experience in working with old master drawings through internships and fellowships at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As he began work on treating the drawings, Sokolowski also began to contemplate their original purpose.

“These drawings were cataloged long ago as costume designs,” Sokolowski said. “But looking at the other two extant sets of Rabel ballet drawings through the internet, one at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and one at the Louvre in Paris, it seems more likely that Harvard owns pages from a highly-finished souvenir or commemorative album for this extremely elaborate, eight-hour ballet.”

Sokolowski’s suspicion that Harvard’s Rabel drawings were made to be a gift rather than dress-maker’s instructions is an idea bolstered by historical dance scholar Margaret McGowan, in her 1985 book, “The Court Ballet of Louis XIII,” where she suggested that the London set were working drawings used to create the costumes and the more polished works held at the Louvre and Harvard.

Sokolowski’s investigation into the drawings also revealed new information about how they were made. Though it was known that the images were drawn with ink and watercolors, X-ray fluorescence analysis performed by paper conservator Theresa Smith during the treatment process showed that every drawing includes paints containing silver and gold to highlight various aspects of the costumes. Though the colors have faded or tarnished over almost four centuries, the drawings, when new would have been dazzling.

“To see the drawings with the silver and gold accents completely changes their character,” he said. “Knowing what colorants were used in the drawings gives us a window into what the ballet may have really looked like. It would have been much more opulent and colorful than the drawings suggest today.”