A priceless set of Raphael tapestries is in peril after pigeons and their droppings made an appearance at a Spanish exhibition. The nine tapestries currently on display in the main gallery of Madrid’s royal palace have survived the last 500 years in near-pristine condition. But gallery staff are now scrambling to keep the winged pests from inflicting damage, the Guardian reports.
The tapestries, titled Acts of the Apostles, were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 as decoration for the Sistine Chapel. After Raphael completed the sketches, which detail scenes from the lives of St. Peter and Paul, they were sent to a workshop in Brussels, which translated the designs into life-size hangings spun from gold and silver silk and wool threads. Acts of the Apostles are the artist’s only known tapestry designs and the last major project he completed before his death in 1520. Impressed with the work, European monarchs, including Spain’s Phillip II, commissioned replicas of the tapestries to adorn their own courts.
The Philip II tapestries have been on display since last November to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death. The avian issue arose in recent weeks, as the spring and summer heat has necessitated staff ventilate the gallery, allowing the birds to swoop in from the palace grounds through the open windows.
Spain’s National Heritage institution, Patrimonio Nacional, which oversees the tapestries and the exhibition, said in a statement, “None of the tapestries has suffered any damage whatsoever at any time,” adding that a “thorough search” of the building had determined that no pigeons were nesting inside the palace.
The institution said that two ultrasonic devices were now in place to deter the pigeons from entering the spaces where the tapestries are displayed. “In parallel, we are also carrying out a controlled opening of the windows to allow the gallery to be correctly ventilated to guarantee visitors’ safety while also stopping birds from entering its interior,” it added.
The tapestries are one of two bearing designs by Raphael in the palace’s collection and are considered the best preserved tapestries made of the original sketches. Others haven’t fared so well: the replicas commissioned by Francis I of France were lost amid the French Revolution, and the British copies were destroyed during World War II.
“Their excellent condition can be explained by a combination of factors,” Patrimonio Nacional told the Guardian. “Some are related to their weaving in Brussels using resistant fibers and high-quality natural dyes, while the absence of metal threads has prevented oxidation and corrosion.”