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Perspectives Materials

Immaterial: Stone

Making and breaking legacies.

June 4

Detail of Adam's face.

What happens when the unbreakable shatters?

Throughout art museums around the world, you’ll find ancient stone statues of rulers and marble monuments immortalizing noblemen. These objects were made to survive decay and destruction, to remain intact and whole. But from the moment that stone is extracted from the earth, it is bound to become a more fragmented version of itself—chiseled, chipped, and sometimes shattered over time.

In this episode, we examine the many ways that stone breaks. How can a statue’s cracks and cavities tell a more complex story of our humanity?

Read the complete transcript below.

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Season 2 of Immaterial is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. Additional support is provided by the Zodiac Fund.


CAMILLE DUNGY: There’s a writer—Robert Macfarlane—who talks about stone in a really fascinating way. Robert is a mountaineer and a nature writer, and there’s a passage from his book, Underland, that has been stuck in my head as we’ve worked on this episode. Before we start, I want to share it with you:

“We tend to imagine stone as inert matter, obdurate in its fixity. But seen in deep time, stone feels instead like a liquid briefly paused in its flow. Stone folds as strata, gouts as lava, floats as plates, shifts as shingle.”


And with that…

Our story begins one late night in New York City.

JACK SOULTANIAN: It was a Sunday night, it was October 6th, 2002.

DUNGY: This is conservator Jack Soultanian. He preserves and repairs art at The Met.

SOULTANIAN: And I had just returned from the movies.

DUNGY: He was about to settle in at his home for the night when his phone rang.

Being a conservator isn’t like being a surgeon or a firefighter. In sixteen years working at the Museum, Jack had never received an emergency call on a weekend.

SOULTANIAN: I was told that there was a terrible accident. So naturally, I rushed to the Museum.

DUNGY: He arrived at the underground security entrance and was led through the Museum to a gallery called the Vélez Blanco Patio. When Jack entered, he was astonished at what he saw.

SOULTANIAN: The scene was truly devastating.

DUNGY: Strewn across the floor of the patio…was a body.

Fragments of Adam against a gray tile floor. Larger pieces show the breakage at his feet and parts of his appendages, and are surrounded by tiny pieces of marble.

Fragments of Tullio Lombardo's Adam (36.163). Photo by Carolyn Riccardelli

SOULTANIAN: It was, it was total grief and horror at the scene.

DUNGY: The body…was made of marble. It had been a carefully rendered, life-sized sculpture of Adam, the one from the Bible. This nude figure appeared simultaneously divine and human. It was considered one of the greatest works of the fifteenth century, created by one of Italy’s most gifted sculptors, Tullio Lombardo.

Marble statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo. His figure casts a shadow against the gray background.

Tullio Lombardo (Italian, ca. 1455–1532). Adam, ca. 1490–95. Marble, 75 1/2 in. (191.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1936 (36.163)

SOULTANIAN: This great masterpiece of Italian Renaissance sculpture was absolutely, you know, in pieces. The fragments were scattered everywhere, and at that time it was unclear what had happened.

DUNGY: Was this the site of a crime? Or a terrible accident? Was the statue pushed or did it fall? Or did it spontaneously explode?

While Jack stood trying to wrap his head around what had happened, he heard a horrifying, crunching sound right behind him.


SOULTANIAN: The security officer who brought me up, who had all good intentions, kept walking in the patio floor, and I can still hear the sound of the fragments crushing under his shoes.

And so I told him, very politely, to, you know, please stop, which he did. And then I cordoned off, I said that no one was allowed into the patio.

DUNGY: Jack was in a daze, but he knew in this moment, on a Sunday night, there wasn't much he could do. The damage was done. So, for the second time that night he went home.

SOULTANIAN: When I woke on Monday morning it was the first time I had ever thought, you know, this was a dream or a nightmare. That this did not really happen.

DUNGY: But it did really happen. And when Jack arrived back at the Museum, he had to get to work. He called fellow conservator Carolyn Riccardelli, who had just completed grad school and had recently started a job at the Museum.

CAROLYN RICCARDELLI: I remember it very clearly. I got the phone call and it was my colleague Jack Soultanian, and he said there’s been an incident.

And I went upstairs and I saw this sculpture broken all over the floor…and it was devastating. Like I had a visceral, physical reaction to it, an emotional reaction that I still feel, even now talking about it.

I didn’t know what the work of art was because I was unfamiliar with Adam. And I asked him, you know, what is this? What fell down? And he said, it’s Adam by Tullio Lombardo. And I'm, and I kind of shrugged my shoulders and he said it’s the most important Renaissance sculpture in the Western Hemisphere. And that really hit me. I couldn't believe it.

And then, you know, I had to click into, alright, what are we gonna do next? Like, what are we gonna do about this?

DUNGY: From The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m poet and writer Camille Dungy, and this is Immaterial. This episode, Stone.


DUNGY: The stories stone carries…

ROBERT MACFARLANE: Look at the spells they cast, the crimes they incite…

RICCARDELLI: There’s some kind of life force that this sculpture has…

DUNGY: And what it means when stone breaks.

ERHAN TAMUR: When you damage a statue, you could also damage the individual…

RICCARDELLI: It was bad. It was bad. It was a big mistake.

DUNGY: Those pieces on the floor of the Vélez Blanco Patio are no stranger to fragmentation. Before the sculpture shattered on the floor, it was a stone slab chiseled and chipped in an artist’s studio. And before that, it was hacked from the side of a mountain.

Stone sculptures are formed through successive subtractions—forged through breaking, bit by bit.

So it makes sense that to understand what it means for a stone sculpture to break, we have to look back at why artists choose to carve stone in the first place. This is not a choice that artists make lightly. Stone is…heavy. Almost immovable. So, why use it?

I promise I’ll get back to Adam’s story, but for now, I want to introduce you to a guy in ancient Mesopotamia who used stone in the stoniest way possible…

Gudea was a powerful ruler in ancient Mesopotamia, one of the earliest recorded civilizations in the world.

SARAH GRAFF: We're looking at about four thousand years ago. Southern Iraq, kind of just branching off the Tigris River.

DUNGY: That’s Met curator Sarah Graff. We met in her office, where she just finished a cranberry scone.

GRAFF: Yeah, it was really good. And I can’t believe it’s still around because I bought it on Sunday. How did it survive till Wednesday? Who knows, but it was good. And I was like, thanks past self for thinking of future self.

DUNGY: Okay, that’s beside the point, but actually…kind of not? Like Sarah, the Mesopotamian ruler Gudea thought a lot about his future self. Specifically, Gudea was thinking of himself in the afterlife. In ancient Mesopotamia after you died…

GRAFF: You depend on your descendants to remember you so that you’re not in the afterlife hungry and thirsty and alone and forgotten.

DUNGY: They were supposed to leave food and water and other meaningful offerings at your grave.

Being the powerful ruler that he was, Gudea wanted to be remembered and tended to, not just for a couple of generations, but forever. But, he wondered…

GRAFF: How do I communicate with somebody that I can’t imagine? How do I make sure that they know this really important piece of information?

DUNGY: How do I tell people who will never meet me, who will live far into the future, that I mattered?

Gudea commissioned a nearly indestructible tribute. A group of sculptures of himself. And he was very particular about what material they would be made of. A dark, smooth stone known to be practically unbreakable: diorite.

GRAFF: He didn’t want them made in precious metals, in ivory. He wanted them made in diorite, because diorite’s a very hard stone. It’s a permanent kind of image. It would stand for eternity.

DUNGY: To get his hands on diorite, Gudea likely sent an expedition hundreds of miles away to where the stone was mined in present-day Oman. Then, he ordered the construction of a series of diorite sculptures of himself to be placed in temples throughout the city. One record said there were five hundred sculptures.

And inscribed on at least one of the sculptures was a phrase:

GRAFF: “Let the life of Gudea, who built the house, be long.”

His life is long because we still know his name four thousand years after he died. We know who he is. We know what he did.

So, in a really concrete sense his life has been long because of the medium that he chose for preserving his accomplishments. And his life continues.

DUNGY: And today, four thousand years later, one of Gudea’s statues sits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seated, hands folded over each other in front of his chest like a confident boss, Gudea doesn’t look a day over…five hundred.

At left, statue of Gudea in dark diorite stone. Gudea is seated with hands clasped at his lap, wearing a helmet and a robe inscribed with Sumerian. At right, a close up of Gudea's clasped hands.

Statue of Gudea, named “Gudea, the man who built the temple, may his life be long” and detail, ca. 2090 BCE. Mesopotamia. Neo-Sumerian. Diorite, 17 3/8 x 8 1/2 x 11 5/8 in. (44 x 21.5 x 29.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1959 (59.2)

GRAFF: He has beautiful fingernails and toenails. And you can see his cuticles, which is extraordinary.


DUNGY: Imagine one of Gudea’s sculptures as a sped up time lapse moving a century a second. Over the years, the sculpture's surrounding environment shifts. The city around it is built up and broken down. The sculpture is remembered, forgotten, worshiped, discarded, and then remembered again.

But at the end of it all, the diorite sculpture still stands, cuticles and all, almost outside of time. Stone declares its own importance, its own power, if for no other reason than that it is still here.


DUNGY: So back to Tullio Lombardo’s Adam—that marble sculpture that shattered into hundreds of pieces on the Museum floor.

Marble was the diorite of the Italian Renaissance. It was the type of material out of which rulers and religious leaders wanted their monuments carved. They chose marble as their medium. To scream “this is important” through the void of time and into the future.

Adam was definitely a “this is important” psychic scream. A successful one at that. That’s thanks to the sheer genius of the guy who carved his name on the base of the statue...

The artist himself, Tullio Lombardo.

Detail image of Adam's base showing Tullio Lombardo's signature carved into the marble.

Detail from Adam

In the early Renaissance, Tullio Lombardo was known as one of the greatest sculptors of all time. To Carolyn Riccardelli, the conservator who encountered Adam shattered on the floor, Tullio’s work exuded something difficult to place your finger on.

RICCARDELLI: There’s some kind of life force that this sculpture has. I mean, I always felt it because it looked realistic and alive, even as individual fragments. There were moments where I was like, Oh, is it real?

DUNGY: At the time that Tullio Lombardo made this sculpture, he was in his early thirties, and he was eager to prove himself. So, when the doge of Venice called upon Tullio’s family workshop to construct a whole church monument in his honor, Tullio must have been excited to take the lead.

For his showstopping piece in the multi-part monument, Tullio hatched a plan to sculpt an incredibly life-like version of Adam—the perfect man, created by God and in God’s image—in marble.

Marble statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo. His figure casts a shadow against the gray background.

Tullio Lombardo's Adam

And he wouldn’t sculpt Adam out of just any marble. He would use Carrara marble: a perfect stoney cocktail, mixed and fermented over millions of years.

Seen over deep time, stones like marble are almost…liquid, which might come as a surprise. It definitely did to writer Robert Macfarlane.

MACFARLANE: I grew up as a mountaineer. I’m still a mountaineer. And, you know, mountaineers really prize the solidity of rock. It’s kind of what you hang on and what you hang off. But I remember some of those gong strike moments, when you begin to realize that you’re dealing with a substance that has its own fantastical age, its own extraordinary biographies.

You realize that stone has other identities too, and some of those are liquid and some of those are somewhere between liquid and solid.

DUNGY: Carrara marble is one of those extraordinary, malleable stones.

It started as the skeletons of ancient sea creatures compressed at the bottom of the ocean. When tectonic plates shifted, the fossilized mass metamorphosed and slowly rose up six thousand feet to form the Apuan Alps in Carrara, Italy.

It’s these kinds of ancient histories that clue you in to stone’s mobility, or as Robert puts it…

MACFARLANE: The symphony of the Earth, the way that mountains rise and fall, they dilapidate.

DUNGY: Most marble becomes discolored or streaked over time as it melds with other minerals, but by some strange accident, some Carrara marble remains perfectly crystalline and translucent. It glows.

From ancient times, humans were obsessed with Carrara marble. They went through immense effort to wrench this heavy material from the side of a mountain and lug it hundreds of miles away.

Tullio Lombardo’s Adam was a work of art worthy of Carrara marble. Tullio received a six foot three inch block of marble, and he had one chance to carve his perfect human body.

The process of carving is quite unforgiving.

RICCARDELLI: It’s a subtractive process. Once you remove stone by carving it, you can’t put it back on.

Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So, if you make a mistake at the top of the sculpture, you would continue carving until you corrected that mistake.

DUNGY: Tullio Lombardo couldn’t make a single mistake. And he didn’t.

RICCARDELLI: To me that’s just very impressive and shows a command of the material. Like a confidence and skill that kind of blows my mind.

DUNGY: Tullio completed the twenty-sculpture monument for the doge of Venice with the help of assistants, but he chose to carve his signature only on Adam. It was an assertion of his authorship, an acknowledgement of his great work. And maybe, this carved signature would communicate his skill to people hundreds of years into the future.

His masterpiece was actively and carefully protected for more than five hundred years. It eventually made its way to The Met, where it stood on a pedestal in a gallery, intact and whole. Until…the worst thing that could happen, happened. The sculpture fell.

I have questions about this. What actually happened? Why did Adam fall?

RICCARDELLI: Adam was on a pedestal. The reason the sculpture fell down is because the pedestal collapsed. It buckled under the weight of the sculpture and it fell apart. And Adam went down with the pedestal.  

What I know is that the pedestal was built about two years before the accident, so it really wasn’t a very old pedestal. There was some work done in the Vélez Blanco patio. And at that time, they redid the pedestals. And they were built by an outside contractor.

Clearly this one wasn’t built properly. It wasn’t built for something this heavy. And even if it’s not something I ever directly had any conversations about, you still feel responsible.

This was a really special work of art. And it was under our watch.

I mean, I still get choked up thinking about those moments. And there are times I give talks about the sculpture and there’s a moment where I show pictures of the broken fragments on the floor, and it’s a palpable reaction from the audience every time. And then I feel that, and I get choked up. And I’ve done it many times and over and over and here even now, sitting here, I still have that emotional reaction.

It was bad. It was bad. It was a big mistake.

And that reaction drove our decision making and, the way that we approached it, we wanted to make up for the accident, and get as much out of it as we could.

DUNGY: Stone asks a lot of the conservators tasked with fixing it when it breaks. These individuals are required to somehow do the impossible—to remake the object so that all the stories and meanings it carries may continue to survive through time.

For both Jack and Carolyn, this was a worst case scenario, something that they had never seen in real life. So after they encountered the broken pieces on the floor, what did they do next? Find out after the break.


DUNGY: Met conservators Jack and Carolyn were given a day and a half to collect all the fragments of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam. This was twenty-eight large pieces and hundreds of tiny shards spread across the marble floor of the Vélez Blanco Patio. How did they even conceptualize a way to clean up the mess?

They did what they knew. They tried to make order out of chaos.

Fragments of Adam against a gray tile floor, labeled with an alphanumeric code.

Fragments of Adam. Photo by Carolyn Riccardelli

SOULTANIAN: So, what we did is we literally gridded the floor. Every tile that had even the tiniest fragment of the marble was given a code number according to its coordinates and was photographed.

DUNGY: Once they gathered every fragment, big and small, the team laid them out on tables in their studio, wondering, but not knowing, what would come next.

RICCARDELLI: I immediately thought of who was going to deal with this? Who’s going to put this back together? Not like, how are we going to explain that we have to trash the sculpture?

In other words, I always went straight to somebody’s going to put this piece back together. It’s gonna be a big giant job, and who’s gonna to do that? And it turned out to be me.

DUNGY: As it turns out, it took about three years to secure the resources needed to start the conservation project. Carolyn was asked to lead the team of conservators to put Adam back together.

She began by approaching the smaller fragments of the sculpture like a massive 3D puzzle.

RICCARDELLI: Michael Morris, my partner on the project and I would stare at these fragments. For hours on end.

The two of us became so familiar with these fragments. There were a couple of little pieces that were like, why can’t we find where this goes?

We would start naming them like this little nubbin, or that little chunk. And we got to the point where we would just rearrange them on the table, like, according to shape or according to color.

Two images showing portions of Adam's arm after the fall. Fractures are visible in brighter white against the marble, showing the break points. The arms lay against a gray background.

Reassembling pieces of Adam. Photos by Carolyn Riccardelli

DUNGY: There was another thing that really helped in this reassembly process—Tullio Lombardo himself!

RICCARDELLI: There’s minute tool marks remaining on the surface of the sculpture that helped us a lot in finding the locations of the fragments. 

DUNGY: These were tool marks that Tullio left as he chiseled and smoothed his marble sculpture. They provided a guide for Carolyn and Michael. So with Tullio’s help, they slowly began to make progress on their puzzle.

Rejoining these small pieces, which seems really difficult, was actually the easiest part of the project.

RICCARDELLI: Finding locations for all of the little tiny pieces, that’s kind of second nature for conservators. We work with ancient materials. And the ancient materials that survive are the inorganic brittle materials: ceramics, glass, stone. Anything that’s made out of brittle materials, it breaks.

DUNGY: Yes, stone is frequently chosen as a material to last. But stories like the perfectly preserved statues of Gudea are rare. Many stone objects break, whether by accident, or by force.

RICCARDELLI: There’s a lot in the Museum that’s fragmentary. I think most people don’t realize it.

We do a very good job of disguising it, because we don't necessarily want to highlight the fragmentary nature of things. And we fill in holes, and we fill in the cracks, and we paint it.

When I go through a museum with another conservator, we spot things and we’re pointing them out and we’re trying to imagine where the restorations are. But when I go through with somebody who’s not a museum person at all, and they’re like, wow, it’s amazing that this survived.

DUNGY: I will admit, I have frequently been one of those people.

RICCARDELLI: And I’m like, well, it survived, but I can tell this is in, like, fifty different pieces and somebody’s put it back together very carefully and restored all of the losses.

DUNGY: When Carolyn walks through a museum, she notices all of the repairs that people like her have made to sculptures. But those repairs weren’t only made by contemporary conservators. Sometimes, repairs that Carolyn notices were done by people centuries ago.

Some of these people were also well known artists. Tullio Lombardo occasionally restored ancient Roman and Greek marble sculptures.

I love this part of his story. He constructed missing arms or legs to make fragmented bodies whole again.

But there are also broken stone objects in the Museum that were never put back together.

TAMUR: When these statues of Gudea were excavated in the late nineteenth century, many of these statues, their heads were missing.

DUNGY: This is Erhan Tamur, a Gudea expert and former Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at The Met.

There is one very well preserved whole Statue of Gudea at The Met. But as Erhan mentioned, most other Gudea statues that were unearthed in Iraq in the nineteenth century were found as disembodied heads and headless bodies.

Head of Gudea in dark diorite stone. The jagged base of the neck shows where the head has been removed from the body. The left ear is also damaged.

Head of Gudea, ca. 2090 BCE. Mesopotamia, Neo-Sumerian. Diorite, 10 1/8 x 7 5/8 x 10 in. (25.5 x 19.2 x 25.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1949 (49.26)

Some of these statues were likely intentionally decapitated inside an ancient building.

TAMUR: In ancient Mesopotamia, such statues were not only representations of the person who was depicted. They also embodied the individual. So when you damage a statue, you could also damage the individual.

DUNGY: Some statues may have been broken more recently by individuals seeking to sell fragments for large sums on the antiquities market. In the case of one Gudea statue in the nineteenth century…

TAMUR: A French modern telegraph inspector who saw this statue out in the open in one of his inspection rounds, then approached the statue, sawed off the hands.

We don’t really know how he broke them, but it must have taken some time. And he clearly saw how valuable it can be. And he brought them back to Baghdad and sold it to an antiquities dealer.

DUNGY: So the inspector broke the Gudea sculpture, took just its hands to sell, and left the rest behind. The hands were later rejoined with the rest of the statue, and it was made whole again, but today many Gudea statues sit in different museums displayed as just a disembodied head or just a headless body—fragmented versions of their former selves that were sold and dispersed across the world.

Two images of Gudea statues from the Louvre. At left, a headless Gudea sits with his hands clasped. At right, a closeup of Gudea's clasped hands.

Left: Gudea, Prince of Lagash, with architectural plan, ca. 2120 BCE. Neo-Sumerian. Diorite, 93 x 41 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (93-001715). Photo by René-Gabriel Ojéda © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Right: Gudea, prince of Lagash, dedicated to the god Ningirsu, ca. 2120 BCE. Neo-Sumerian. Diorite, 158 x 80 x 90 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (96-017876). Photo by Hervé Lewandowski © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

And these are wounds that conservators cannot easily disguise or fill in, because there is too much missing.

“Surviving” whole is not neutral or coincidental. The question of whether an object survives—whether it is destroyed, or whether it is repaired—is at the whims of larger forces. Of invading armies, of French telegraph inspectors, of powerful institutions who collect art.


DUNGY: Tullio Lombardo’s Adam was broken by accident, but in deciding how to approach this conservation, Carolyn and her team wondered if they should show evidence of the fact that Adam was once broken. Or should they hide that?

RICCARDELLI: Our accident just didn’t seem like something that Adam needed to carry. I mean, it was an important reminder to us as conservators, but it didn’t need to be displayed on the sculpture permanently.

So, that’s why we chose to take all of the fills and restorations to a very high level, to become as invisible as we could possibly make them.

DUNGY: Carolyn and her team wanted to move through the repair process like ghosts. If they did it right, their presence would be totally undetectable. They would leave no evidence of their work on the surface of this sculpture for future generations.

If Carolyn and her team truly wanted to leave as little trace of the accident on Adam as possible, they would need to make the materials they used to glue him back together…reversible.

RICCARDELLI: You want to be able to give a person in the next generation 150 years down the road, you want to give them a chance to undo what we did and do it a different way. Because you can’t fathom what they can do in a hundred years, two hundred years.

DUNGY: One of the most challenging things that conservators have to deal with when performing repairs on older sculptures is fixing previous repairs, ones that were done by people centuries ago.

RICCARDELLI: I do remember at least one object where I was removing resin that I had to use a heat gun and pick it away little by little under a microscope. But boy, it’s really tough. I mean, hours and hours of picking away resin.

I think in my earlier days, I used to get really angry about it. Like, what were they thinking?

DUNGY: And this frustration is not rare. It’s something that so many conservators have experienced.

RICCARDELLI: The difficulty in removing those materials probably was the thing that made conservators think, we should make things more easily reversible when we do our interventions.

DUNGY: If Carolyn and her team could make the adhesives they used on Adam reversible, that would be an incredible feat. It would be like a magic trick, to be able to reconstruct this life-sized marble sculpture and then leave the option to take it apart again.

For Carolyn, the key was finding the right adhesive.

For many years, the approach to sticking heavy fragments together was epoxy, which is basically super glue. But the problem with epoxy—it’s not exactly reversible.

RICCARDELLI: You can heat it up and scrape it off or use very harsh solvents to soften it, but it usually results in some damage to the stone that it’s been bonding.

DUNGY: So using epoxy…not the answer.

RICCARDELLI: We have this adhesive in conservation, called B-72 that we use on ceramics and stone, but on a small scale.

DUNGY: If epoxy is super glue, B-72 is the conservator’s version of white school glue. This acrylic resin was very reversible, but no one had tested to see if it would hold up for heavy stone works like Adam. We’re talking about an almost 800 pound piece of marble. At the time, there were conservators in the field experimenting with combining B-72 and epoxy.

RICCARDELLI: If you imagine two pieces of stone put together. There’s a join or a connection between the two. And the B-72 is reversible adhesive. You put a coating of that directly on the stone and then you use epoxy to actually join the stone.

DUNGY: You make a B-72 sandwich.

RICCARDELLI: B-72 is the bread and the epoxy is the meat or the cheese, as you wish.

DUNGY: The idea was that if you have the pieces of stone covered with B-72, which is reversible, and then you add the epoxy, the epoxy would bond the two pieces without making a permanent, irreversible change to the statue.

RICCARDELLI: But how many layers are in that sandwich? It’s three layers. They could be very thin, but that’s three layers of material that you’re introducing into a join.

DUNGY: That three layered sandwich would be too chunky. The sculpture pieces were fresh breaks that needed to fit together really tightly. The team wondered if they could use just one layer of a reversible adhesive like B-72. Not a sandwich, but a secret sauce combining B-72 and another acrylic resin. After materials tests, they tried it out.

RICCARDELLI: They were like a perfect match for the marble. So, a hundred years from now, if somebody needs to take Adam apart, they’ll be able to do it with acetone and nothing else.

DUNGY: This kind of experimental research had never happened in the field. No one believed that reversible adhesives alone would be strong or stable enough to support the forces in a large sculpture. Doing this research and testing took years to experiment with different combinations of reversible adhesives and ensure that they would actually hold together an 800 pound piece of marble. Several years into the process, they still hadn’t actually put the sculpture back together yet. Up until that point, it had been dress rehearsals with replicas.

Then came the big day, when they would actually reassemble Adam

RICCARDELLI: We didn’t know up until that point that everything fit together. How well it fit together. Because we thought, it’s possible there could have been some change in the stone.

DUNGY: Pardon?

RICCARDELLI: Sometimes when a ceramic vessel breaks it actually springs and you can never really get it back together the way it was because there’s some inherent tension sort of built into the way that the ceramic is made.

We thought, who knows, it could have gotten deformed in some way, and we just don’t know until today.

DUNGY: Imagine the amount of pressure they felt on that day. More than a decade of research and work all came down to this moment.

RICCARDELLI: When you are charged with putting it back together and knowing…that the art historical world is watching, the conservation world is watching, and a lot of people are watching. That was a big weight on my shoulders.

DUNGY: They put the large fragments in armatures and began stacking up each piece.

In a gray-walled room, four people stand around Adam as his head, hanging from a harness, is reattached to his body.

Reassembling Adam. Photo by Chris Heins © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

RICCARDELLI: We started from the ankles and working our way through the legs, one leg fragment at a time. And the alignment of the leg fragments looked really good.

DUNGY: Then they had to connect the legs to the torso.

RICCARDELLI: The torso, which weighs 350 pounds, it’s this massive piece of stone. It was actually hanging from something that looked like a corset, so we repositioned the torso so it was right over the legs.

DUNGY: The legs were on a lift table that could be raised to meet the torso.

RICCARDELLI: And just slowly, slowly raising the table, like minute increments to the point where we could see it was gonna line up. And that last little step where the crack just sort of disappears in between the fragments was amazing. Everything lined up perfectly.

DUNGY: And after the adhesives dried and bonded…

RICCARDELLI: We took away the armature and it was, for me, that was a big moment to see the sculpture without anything holding it up was like a huge sense of accomplishment. 

DUNGY: So in 2014, twelve years after Adam shattered on the floor of the Vélez Blanco Patio, Carolyn and her team accomplished an unthinkable task. They made Adam whole again. A new gallery was even built for Adam, and he was reintroduced to the public. The gallery is mostly empty, with Adam standing high in a niche at the back. Carolyn was ecstatic.

Light is trained on Adam, standing on a wood pedestal and centered within a doorway. Signage around the doorframe announces the exhibit celebrating his restoration.

European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries (Gallery 504): Tullio Lombardo's Adam: A Masterpiece Restored (November 11, 2014-June 14, 2015). View looking from Gallery 503 into Gallery 504, including Adam as installed in the gallery

But it wasn’t all celebration and relief. In the first year after the sculpture was reinstalled, Carolyn was a bit anxious and frequently came to the gallery to check on Adam.

RICCARDELLI: I did come up and I would touch the joins and make sure they felt aligned still.

When you connect two pieces of stone that have a very tight join the way that Adam has, you just run your finger over that connection and you can feel when it’s perfectly aligned. And it’s like if it’s off even by the most minute amount, less than a hair, you can feel it. Or I can feel it.

DUNGY: But it never budged. Today, Carolyn stands in the gallery, just to check his ankle one more time.

RICCARDELLI: It’s totally smooth. I can’t perceive that at all. I mean, I don’t worry about him like…there’s a lot of things that I worry about in the Museum, but he’s not one. I know he’s totally solid.

DUNGY: Standing in the gallery with Carolyn, Adam appears perfectly whole. Pristine. It’s almost impossible to tell that the sculpture was once broken.

Even though Carolyn did an impossible task, something of the utmost talent and skill, those who encounter Adam years in the future won’t know her name. Unlike Gudea, unlike Tullio Lombardo, Carolyn hasn’t carved her name or any evidence of herself to last through deep time on this object.

Because for Carolyn, that’s not the point. Rather, she wants to give people the opportunity to experience the work as Tullio originally intended.

RICCARDELLI: I think that, that doing a good job and getting it back as perfectly as we possibly could was a driving force the whole time. And part of that was to see it standing, to see it look whole, and to see it displayed in the galleries again, so that people could enjoy it.

I mean that’s a pleasure that I can say that I’ve done that too. And just to, like, have had the experience of feeling so connected to a work of art and really, feeling connected to an artist.

And when you start to look very closely at an object and spend a lot of time on it, and you see tool marks and fingerprints and clay and things like that, like, you really do feel a connection. And that’s a big…it’s a privilege to be able to feel that connection and get that close to a work of art.

MACFARLANE: One way to imagine stone or minerals or rock as less than inert, as not only just matter, is to think what they do to us.

DUNGY: Robert Macfarlane.

MACFARLANE: I mean, in one sense, they’re just geological happenstances. And you wouldn’t really think I guess that they were anything other than inert matter.

But then you look at what they do in the world. You look at the spells they cast, you look at the enchantments that they exert, the crimes they incite. How are they not agential or almost willful presences? They draw us, they pull us, they push us into all manner of actions that we wouldn’t undertake without a relationship with them.


RICCARDELLI: It’s a big part of me, this project. And…it’s an honor to be part of the life of the sculpture.


DUNGY: Walking through the Museum, stone objects might seem stagnant. But in a lot of ways, they are alive. In the ways that artists shape them, in how they crack and erode, but also in how they affect us. Maybe that’s why we fight so hard to protect stone sculptures.

But despite all our efforts, stone objects will inevitably change. Preserving a stone sculpture is preserving one moment in the life of this material. It’s freezing it in time for just one moment longer.


DUNGY: Immaterial is produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise.

Our production staff includes Salman Ahad Khan, Ann Collins, Samantha Henig, Eric Nuzum,  Emma Vecchione, Sarah Wambold, and Jamie York.

Additional staff includes Julia Bordelon, Skyla Choi, Maria Kozanecka, and Rachel Smith.

This season would not be possible without Andrea Bayer, Inka Drögemüller, and Douglas Hegley.

Sound design by Ariana Martinez and Kristin Mueller.

This episode includes original music composed by Austin Fisher.

Fact-checking by Mary Mathis and Claire Hyman.

Special thanks to Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong.

Immaterial is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. Additional support provided by the Zodiac Fund.

This episode would not have been possible without: curator Sarah Graff; Robert Macfarlane; conservator Carolyn Riccardelli; conservator Jack Soultanian; and art historian at the University of York, Erhan Tamur.

And special thanks to: the scholarship of art historians Luke Syson and Valeria Cafa.

To see images of the statue of Gudea and Tullio Lombardo’s Adam, or to watch a timelapse video of Adam being put back together, visit The Met’s website at

I’m your host, Camille Dungy.


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