National Geographic : 1956 Nov
657 Volkmar Wentzel, National Geographic Staff Houdon's Bust of Cagliostro Portrays One of History's Most Remarkable Rogues Giuseppe Balsamo, 18th-century confidence man, quack doctor, hypnotist, and roue, styled himself the Count of Cagliostro. Repeatedly exposed as an impostor and expelled from cities all over Europe, he left behind a trail of broken hearts, forged documents, and bankrupt accounts of those who believed in his schemes for making gold through alchemy. Condemned by the Inquisition as a heretic, he died in prison in 1795. Jean-Antoine Houdon, the finest portrait sculptor of his day, has represented the "Count" as a dreamer and poet, for the artist, like thousands of others, was duped by the famous faker. Here Lester Cooke, of the National Gallery's curatorial staff, relates the tale of Cagliostro to a rapt audience. The support on which a picture is painted, usually either canvas or wood, is not inert. When the atmosphere is humid it stretches or swells; when it is dry, the reverse occurs. This movement causes the paint surface, which is relatively inelastic, to crack and blister, and eventually to detach itself and flake away. However, air conditioning can stabilize hu midity and reduce the movement of the sup port to almost nothing. Humidity Control Saves Great Art The National Gallery is the largest com pletely air-conditioned art museum in the world. Pictures after a time become accli mated to this stable atmosphere, and the amount of restoration required is far less than it is in any other gallery of comparable size. Thus science aids in preserving these irreplaceable treasures in the National Gallery. I do not believe that I, or any other museum director, will have the privilege of writing an article like this again. These accessions to our national wealth, which the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE has recorded on sev eral occasions, cannot be a continuing series. The laws of supply and demand do not hold in the art world. Works of art of the quality of the new Kress acquisitions are becoming constantly more rare, and short of some ter rible catastrophe most of the great art treas ures of the world have found permanent resting places. We, in this country, have every reason to be proud and grateful that, thanks to the foundation created by Mr. Samuel H. Kress and Mr. Rush H. Kress, and to the gallery's many other donors, such a generous share of this unique heritage of great art has fallen to our lot.