Pompom on age-old horse sculpture was added later, study finds

The Tang Dynasty horse is now in the custody of the Cincinnati Museum of Art. It was donated to the museum in 1997 by Eleanor Strauss. Photo: Cincinnati Museum of Art

A centuries-old horse sculpture has been the focus of forensic detective work, amid suspicions that one of its features was unoriginal.

The Cincinnati Museum of Art has turned to a University of Cincinnati scientist to help solve the 1,300-year-old mystery.

The museum’s sculpture of the Chinese Dancing Horse is so realistic that the fiery steed looks ready to gallop off its pedestal. But East Asian art curator Hou-mei Sung questioned the authenticity of a decorative tassel on the terracotta horse’s forehead that resembles the horn of a mythological unicorn.

The museum contacted assistant professor of chemistry Pietro Strobbia for help in determining if the acorn was original at work.

“Many museums have a curator, but not necessarily the scientific facilities to do this kind of review,” Strobbia said. “The front tassel looks original, but the museum asked us to figure out what materials it was made of.”

Strobbia and his collaborators wrote about the project in an article published in the journal Heritage science.

Sung saw many examples of ancient carvings paying homage to dancing horses that performed for emperors as early as 202 BC. But no others have tassels on their foreheads, she said. Was it perhaps added at a later date?

The arrow indicates where one of the samples was taken from the glans for scientific analysis.  The image also shows evidence of the animal glue used to attach the adornment, which turned out to be a later addition to the horse carving.  Photo: Conti et al.  https://doi.org/10.1186/s40494-022-00758-7
The arrow indicates where one of the samples was taken from the glans for scientific analysis. The image also shows evidence of the animal glue used to attach the adornment, which turned out to be a later addition to the horse carving. Photo: Conti et al. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40494-022-00758-7

“I thought it was a mistake. The bobble wasn’t in the right position,” she said. “These pieces are so old. They often undergo numerous repairs.

Donated to the Cincinnati Museum by collector Eleanor Strauss in 1997, the dancing horse dates back to the Tang dynasty when such sculptures were commissioned for the express purpose of burying them with royalty when they died, Sung said.

Dancing horses have been trained to move in time with a drumbeat.

Sung said that the 8th century Emperor Xuanzong loved horses so much that he owned a stable of over 40,000 people. For a birthday party, he invited a troupe of 400 dancing horses to perform the Song of the Upside-Down Cup.

“During the dramatic finale, a horse would bend its knees and squeeze a cup in its mouth and offer wine to the ruler to wish him longevity,” Sung said. “It has become a ritual.”

The museum’s terracotta horse is saddled with a blanket and a flowing silk cloth from which stirrups often hang. Ten conical pom poms adorn the horse in the same reddish color as its short tail and long mane.

“The workmanship of the sculpture is magnificent. These horses are renowned,” said Kelly Rectenwald, co-author of the paper and curator of associated artifacts at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

With a background in archeology and chemistry, Rectenwald said she understands how the latest scientific techniques help shed new light on antiquities.

“We don’t have that kind of science equipment here, so the partnership with the University of Cincinnati has been a great resource,” she said.

To answer some of the fundamental questions about the piece, the museum agreed to allow Strobbia and his collaborators, such as Claudia Conti of the Italian Institute of Heritage Sciences, to take 11 small samples for analysis.

“We judged the risk to be worth the reward for answering the question,” Rectenwald said.

Researchers deployed a battery of molecular, chemical and mineralogical tests of the masterpiece and its characteristics using state-of-the-art techniques such as X-ray powder diffraction, ion chromatography and Raman spectroscopy.

Strobbia has always had an interest in art, surrounded by the work of Raphael, Michelangelo and Bernini in Italy.

“I think I grew up a bit spoiled coming from Rome,” he said.

He and his research partners discovered that, indeed, the frontal tassel of the sculpture was plaster, not terracotta. It was added to the sculpture using animal glue.

The museum decided to remove the tassel in accordance with what it knew of the original artwork, Rectenwald said. Beneath the tassel, Rectenwald found a smooth surface without any signs of scratching that one would expect to see under sculptural ornamentation, providing more evidence that the tassel was a later addition.

The researchers also found that two other acorns had been repaired at different times, suggesting the sculpture has been the subject of multiple restoration efforts over its many centuries, Rectenwald said.

“It was restored at least twice in its lifetime,” she said. “Finding something new about a work of art is really interesting.”

Now, Strobbia hopes to expand her experience with the Cincinnati Art Museum by offering her chemistry expertise to other museums in the Midwest and perhaps the University of Cincinnati’s own art collection.

Collaborations between art historians and scientists add an extra dimension to the stories behind these precious masterpieces.

Conti, C., Catrambone, M., Colombo, C. et al. Scientific investigation of the preservation history of Tang Dynasty terracotta dancing horse. Inherits Sci ten128 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40494-022-00758-7

The study, published under a Creative Commons Licensecan be read here.

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