5 Incredible Restorations of Damaged Historical Treasures

iStock.com/Francesco Cantone
iStock.com/Francesco Cantone

It's a painful time for lovers of history, as ISIS cuts a swath of destruction through the Middle East's ancient heritage and war and looters devour what's left. When all seems lost beyond repair, there may be some consolation to be found in the miracles accomplished by restorers and conservators. Here are five restorations that prove that sometimes Humpty Dumpty, even shattered into smithereens, can still be put back together.

1. THE 1770 RATZER MAP OF NEW YORK

In May 2010, the Brooklyn Historical Society discovered that it was the owner of one of the rarest maps of New York in existence: the 1770 version of Plan of the City of New York by British Army officer and surveyor Lieutenant Bernard Ratzer [PDF]. Only three of the maps were thought to survive before this one was found in a shipment from the BHS archives. Mounted on linen and shellacked within an inch of its life, the map was in such deplorable condition that shards of it cracked off and crumbled when map cataloger Carolyn Hansen tried to unroll it.

Paper conservationist Jonathan P. Derow softened the brittle shards by putting the map inside a tent and running a humidifier. Once it was supple enough to work with, he cut away the linen backing, washed the map in a four-day alkaline bath, and meticulously realigned the pieces so they would shrink together in the proper placement once dried. Lastly, Derow bought a bunch of early 19th century books printed on cloth paper (not wood pulp) and sacrificed them to a noble cause. He baked the books in his oven and then boiled them, creating a cloth paper sludge that matched the map color when painted into the white lines.

The final result was so successful it's hard to believe it's the same map.

2. THE GREAT SOUTH GATE OF SEOUL // SOUTH KOREA

The Great South Gate of Seoul, a.k.a. the Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, is a wooden pagoda-style gate built into the city's fortress wall in 1398—just four years after the city became the capital of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)—and rebuilt in 1447. To repair damage done during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-ceasefire 1953), the gate was extensively restored in 1961. It was only reopened to the public in 2006, a century after it was closed and the ancient fortress wall encircling the city demolished.

Two years later, a 69-year-old with a grudge over a property deal gone wrong climbed a ladder to the second floor of the gate, poured paint thinner on the floor, and set it on fire with a disposable lighter. It took firefighters five hours to get the conflagration under control. By then the pagoda—the oldest wooden structure in the city—was a smoldering pile of wreckage.

Thankfully, someone smart had thought to obsessively document the gate during the 2005 renovation, so restorers had 182 pages of blueprints as a starting point. They also had the carbonized rubble, which turned out to contain a surprising amount of salvageable materials. Bent nails were heated up and straightened. More than 60,000 original wood fragments were found to be reusable. The 68 stone animals that adorned the roof were puzzled back together like jigsaw puzzles.

Since they had no choice but to go back to the beginning on this restoration, conservators decided to go all the way back and to restore the gate to its original form, complete with the walls destroyed during the Japanese occupation. Only traditional construction methods were employed this time, unlike the 1961 restoration, which had used modern materials. Every roof tile was hand-made in traditional kilns, and the dancheong—the brilliantly colored traditional decorative painting—was done using natural paints. Not a single power tool was used. Carpenters and masons had to scrounge up their grandpas' tools or make new versions of traditional ones.

Five years after the fire, the Great South Gate was back.

3. BAPHUON TEMPLE // ANGKOR THOM, CAMBODIA 

Speaking of jigsaw puzzles: Cambodia's Baphuon Temple takes the absolute cake on that score. Built around 1060 by King Udayadityavarman II, it was the largest temple in the country until Angkor Wat overtook it a century later. It had structural issues almost from day one, and later redesigns only made it worse. It was plagued by collapses and was in ruins by the early 20th century. The Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO), a French conservation organization, took on restoration of the temple in 1960. Their bold plan was to dismantle every one of the temple's 300,000 sandstone blocks, shore up the flagging sandy structure, and then solve a 300,000-piece 3D puzzle.

Since the temple was a dry stone construction, every block was individually shaped to fit its neighbor—and as the head architect said, “there is not a square centimeter of stone without decoration.” If this plan was to work, the blocks had to be labeled and thoroughly documented. The spread-out stones covered 10 hectares (about 25 acres) of the land surrounding the temple. The dismantling process took years, and when civil war broke out in 1970, work on the temple was impeded. The Khmer Rouge expelled the French EFEO restorers and killed most of the Cambodian ones. When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the headquarters of EFEO was trashed—and the precious documentation of the 300,000 stones and how they fit together was destroyed too.

The EFEO returned to the country in 1995 and got right back on the horse. They photographed and measured every stone, comparing them to photographic archives dating back to 1910. They enlisted the architect who had worked on the project in the 1960s and 30 local builders who had participated in Angkor-area restorations before the Khmer Rouge made doing so a capital offense. The sharp memories of the experienced members saved the day. Computer modeling was attempted, but it paled in comparison to, among others, conservationist Mith Priem's ability to recognize patterns on the stones.

In 2011, Baphuon Temple reopened to the public, structurally sound for the first time despite the 10,000 blocks left unused, like so many tiny IKEA screws you gave up trying to find a place for.

4. THE DESTRUCTION OF POMPEII AND HERCULANEUM

With no appreciation for irony, the Thames flood of January 7, 1928, submerged John Martin's 1822 apocalyptic vision of Vesuvius' eruption. The painting was one of several damaged when the flood waters rushed into the basement of the Tate Gallery in London. Soaked in Thames water and the assorted effluvia of five million people that it carried, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum suffered major paint loss all over and a large chunk torn out of the canvas. All of Vesuvius was gone.

The Tate curators of the time rolled it up in tissue and put it in storage, certain that the painting was gone for good. But Tate curators 82 years later weren't so sure. A planned exhibition on John Martin's apocalyptic vision inspired them to fish the rolled-up painting out of storage and take another look. Things weren't as bad as they feared. It was filthy and flaking, but the flakes were still connected to the canvas, giving conservators the opportunity to reattach the danglers.

The giant gash was another issue. Without the focal point of the erupting volcano, the painting lost much of its story. The Tate experts decided to bite the bullet and fill in the gap. Using Martin's preparatory sketch and the finished smaller version of the work, restorer Sarah Maisey went to work. She didn't want to mimic Martin exactly or try to trick people with her sleight of brush. She wanted to capture his essence but still make it clear on closer inspection that two hands worked on this painting.

The result is as joyously lurid as a John Martin picture should be, and it's reversible so future generations can put the gash back in when they're appalled by our old-timey barbarism.

5. THE TELL HALAF SCULPTURES

When German diplomat Max von Oppenheim first unearthed the 3000-year-old Aramaean city-state of Guzana at Tell Halaf in the northern Syrian desert in 1899, he didn't have the necessary permits to recover the statuary he'd found. He returned 12 years later fully permitted and lushly funded by Papa Oppenheim—but this time, World War I blocked him from taking his share of the statues and stele back home to Germany. Finally, in 1927, he was able to ship two-thirds of them to Berlin and installed them in a dedicated private museum called (with appropriately Germanic literalness) the Tell Halaf Museum.

It only had 16 years to live. On November 23, 1943, the museum was hit by a British phosphorus bomb and burned to the ground. All of the wood and limestone artifacts and plaster casts were obliterated. The statues and stele made of volcanic basalt survived the fire, but exploded into thousands of pieces from thermal shock when firefighters tried to douse the flames with cold water.

Oppenheim refused to give up, however. He convinced Walter Andrae, the director of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at Berlin's Pergamon Museum, to salvage the 27,000 pieces. It took time, and the fragments were damaged further by exposure to frost and heat, but in August 1944, nine truckloads full of destroyed basalt monuments were put in storage in the Pergamon basement.

They remained there untouched until after German reunification, when the museum surveyed the rubble to see if some of the larger fragments could feasibly be reassembled. With funding from the Oppenheim bank and the German Research Foundation, the Pergamon Museum conservators began trying to piece together as many statues as possible out of 27,000 basalt fragments, with some chips the size of a fingernail, and some blocks weighing more than a ton. Once again, computer modeling was rejected in favor of human puzzle power. It only took them 10 years to assemble 25,000 of the pieces into 60 statues and stele. One of Max von Oppenheim's favorite statues, an enthroned goddess discovered during the 1912 excavation, was reconstructed from 1800 pieces alone.

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17 Surprising Facts About Frida Kahlo

Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The life and work of Frida Kahlo—one of Mexico's greatest painters—were both defined by pain and perseverance. Getting to know how Kahlo lived provides greater insight into her masterful paintings, which are rich with detail and personal iconography.

1. Frida Kahlo was born in the same house she died.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in a building nicknamed “La Casa Azul” for its vivid blue exterior. There, she was raised by her mother, Matilde, and encouraged by her photographer father, Guillermo. Years later, she and her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, made it their home as well. And on July 13, 1954, Kahlo died there at age 47.

2. Frida Kahlo's beloved home is now a museum.

Casa Azul is also known as The Frida Kahlo Museum. As a tribute to Kahlo, Rivera donated the house in 1958 as well as all of the artwork, created by both him and Kahlo, that it contained. Much of the interior has been preserved just the way Kahlo had it in the 1950s, making the space a popular tourist attraction that allows visitors a look at her work, life, and personal artifacts, including the urn that holds her ashes.

3. A third of Frida Kahlo's paintings were self-portraits.

Kahlo folded in symbols from her Mexican culture and allusions to her personal life in order to create a series of 55 surreal and uniquely revealing self-portraits. Of these, she famously declared, "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

4. A surreal accident had a big impact on Frida Kahlo's life.

On September 17, 1925, an 18-year-old Kahlo boarded a bus with her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias, only to be forever marred when it crossed a train's path. Recalling the tragedy, Arias described the bus as "burst(ing) into a thousand pieces," with a handrail ripping through Kahlo's torso.

He later recounted, "Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer."

5. Frida Kahlo’s path to painting began with that collision.

The accident broke Kahlo's spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, fractured her right leg in 11 places, and dislocated her shoulder. Those severe injuries left her racked with pain for the rest of her life, and frequently bedbound. But during these times, Kahlo picked up her father's paintbrush. Her mother helped arrange a special easel that would allow her to work from bed. Of her life's hardships, Kahlo once proclaimed, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

6. Frida Kahlo once dreamed of being a doctor.

As a child, Kahlo contracted polio, which withered her right leg and sparked an interest in the healing power of medicine. Unfortunately, the injuries from the train accident forced the teenager to abandon her plans to study medicine.

7. Frida Kahlo’s poor health shaped her art.

In the course of her life, Kahlo would undergo 30 surgeries, including the eventual amputation of her foot due to a case of gangrene. She explored her frustrations with her body's frailty in paintings like The Broken Column, which centers on her shattered spine, and Without Hope, which dramatically depicted a period where her doctor prescribed force-feeding. On the back of the latter, she wrote, "Not the least hope remains to me ... Everything moves in time with what the belly contains."

8. Frida Kahlo didn’t view herself as a surrealist.

She rejected the label, saying, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

9. Frida Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage sparked more pain and paintings.

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Kahlo met Rivera, she was a student and he was already a father of four and on his way to his second divorce. Despite a 20-year age difference, the pair quickly fell for each other, spurring Rivera to leave his second wife and wed Kahlo in 1929.

From there, they were each other's greatest fans and supporters when it came to their art. But their 10-year marriage was wrought with fits of temper and infidelities on both sides. They divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. Paintings like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, The Two Fridas, and The Love Embrace of the Universe boldly illustrated their relationship from Kahlo's perspective.

10. Frida Kahlo grieved privately and publicly for the children she never had.

Modern doctors believe that the bus accident had irreparably damaged Kahlo's uterus, which made pregnancies impossible to carry to term. In 1932, she painted Henry Ford Hospital, a provocative self-portrait that marks one of several devastating miscarriages she suffered.

The piece would be displayed to the world in a 1938 gallery show. But Kahlo kept private personal letters to her friend, Doctor Leo Eloesser, in which she wrote, "I had so looked forward to having a little Dieguito that I cried a lot, but it's over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it.'" This letter, along with others from their decades-long exchange, were released in 2007, having been hidden for almost 50 years by a patron worried about their contents.

11. Frida Kahlo once arrived to an art show in an ambulance.

In 1953, toward the end of her short life, the painter was overjoyed about her first solo exhibition in Mexico. But a hospital stay threatened her attendance. Against doctors' orders, Kahlo made an incredible entrance, pulling up in an ambulance as if in a limousine.

12. Frida Kahlo is rumored to have had several famous lovers.

When she wasn't recovering from surgery or confined to a recuperation bed, Kahlo was full of life, relishing the chance to dance, socialize, and flirt. While American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was in Mexico City for the creation of his History as Seen from Mexico in 1936, he and Kahlo began a passionate affair that evolved into a life-long friendship.

Three years later, while visiting Paris, the bisexual painter struck up a romance with the city's "Black Pearl" entertainer Josephine Baker. And many have speculated that the artist and activist also bedded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, while he and his wife Natalia stayed in Kahlo's family home after they were granted asylum in Mexico in 1936.

13. Frida Kahlo was fiercely proud of her heritage.

Though she'd lived in New York, San Francisco, and Paris, Kahlo was always drawn back to her hometown, Mexico City. She favored traditional Mexican garb, the long colorful skirts she was known for, and the Huipile blouses of Mexico’s matriarchal Tehuantepec society. Perhaps most telling, she told the press she was born in 1910, cutting three years off her age so she could claim the same birth year as the Mexican Revolution.

14. Frida Kahlo had several exotic pets.

Casa Azul boasts a lovely garden where Kahlo had her own animal kingdom. Along with a few Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintli (a dog breed that dates back to the ancient Aztecs), Kahlo owned a pair of spider monkeys named Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal, which can be spotted in Self Portrait with Monkeys. She also cared for an Amazon parrot called Bonito, who would perform tricks if promised a pat of butter as a reward, a fawn named Granizo, and an eagle nicknamed Gertrudis Caca Blanca (a.k.a. Gertrude White Shit).

15. Frida Kahlo has emerged as a feminist icon.

Though in her time some dismissed this passionate painter as little more than "the wife of Master Mural Painter (Diego Rivera)," Kahlo's imaginative art drew acclaim from the likes of Pablo Picasso and film star Edward G. Robinson. After her death, the rise of feminism in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in her work. Kahlo's reputation eclipsed Rivera's, and she grew to become one of the world's most famous painters.

Feminist theorists embrace Kahlo's deeply personal portraits for their insight into the female experience. Likewise, her refusal to be defined by others' definitions and the self-love shown in her proud capturing of her natural unibrow and mustache speak to modern feminist concerns over gender roles and body-positivity.

16. Frida Kahlo’s personal style has become a vibrant part of her legacy.

Frida's art and its influence were not simply spawned from the paint she put to canvas. Her distinctive personal style has proved influential in the world of fashion, inspiring designers like Raffaella Curiel, Maya Hansen, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dolce & Gabbana. (In 2019, Vans even launched a collection of shoes featuring her work.)

17. Frida Kahlo's work is record-breaking.

On May 11, 2016, at the first auction to put a major Frida work up for sale in six years, her 1939 painting Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) sold for over $8 million—the highest auction price then paid for any work by a Latin American artist.

This story was updated in 2020.