Reconstructing the Staff of Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii

By Adrienne Gendron
September 13, 2023
Index Magazine

Reconstructing the Staff of Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii

A white marble sculpture depicts a woman in a loosely draped garment with eyes closed; she leans heavily on a staff at her right side and her left hand is cupped to her ear.
Randolph Rogers, American, Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, 1859. Marble. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Harry Sachs, 1922.136.

When objects conservation fellow Adrienne Gendron set out to treat a famous 19th-century marble sculpture, she had to carefully consider her conservation approach. Should she leave a missing piece as is or reconstruct it?

The sculpture—Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii—references a character from a popular 19th-century novel by Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). In it, an enslaved blind flower-seller named Nydia suffers from unrequited love for Glaucus, who purchased her from abusive owners to serve as a maid for his fiancée. The novel concludes with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. As Pompeii is blanketed under a dark cloud of ash, Nydia relies on her acute sense of hearing to lead Glaucus and his betrothed out of the burning city. After leading them to safety, she throws herself into the sea rather than continue to suffer from unrequited love.

The sculpture depicts Nydia leading the way through the streets of Pompeii as the volcano erupts, leaning heavily on a staff to drive her forward movement, while her windswept garments swirl around her. The Corinthian column capital at her feet symbolizes the ironic inversion of Nydia’s circumstances, in which she, as an enslaved blind woman, is elevated to a position of leadership and power amid the destruction of a great city.[1] In his sculpture, artist Randolph Rogers chose to depict Nydia at a crucial moment in the novel: when she becomes temporarily separated from Glaucus. After calling his name, she raises a cupped hand to her ear, listening for his reply. Her closed eyes allude to her blindness.

Rogers’s Nydias

American by birth, Randolph Rogers (1825–1892) lived in Italy most of his life. Like most sculptors working at the time, he did not execute his own works in stone; rather, he created intermediary versions in clay or plaster. Skilled Italian marble carvers then used a pointing machine to make detailed copies in marble.[2] Rogers completed the plaster version of Nydia in October 1855, and marble copies were made over the following decades. Nydia became Rogers’s most popular work and was exhibited in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Nydia’s popularity was due in part to the rise of the abolitionist movement, which reignited interest in Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, as well as to a widespread interest in the city of Pompeii. Archaeological excavation of Pompeii began in the mid-18th century, and the ancient city’s destruction subsequently became a subject of fascination, particularly for artists throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.[3]

Rogers’s journals document the production of numerous Nydias between 1867 and 1891, many of which were commissioned by Americans for display in their homes. At the time, the sculpture was considered an unusual depiction of female empowerment and heroism and resonated with female audiences; notably, one-fifth of purchasers were women, a high number for this period.[4] Rogers’s sculpture was ultimately replicated 167 times in two sizes: a near life-size version and a reduced version.[5] An even smaller tabletop size was produced as well, perhaps at the same time as the larger ones. The Harvard Art Museums’ Nydia, made in 1859, is a reduced version, measuring about 36 inches high. Versions of Nydia are held in public collections throughout the United States. In fact, three versions are represented in the Boston area. In addition to the mid-size version at the Harvard Art Museums, there is a near life-size version at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a tabletop version at the Robbins Library in Arlington. Today, the sculpture continues to draw admiration for its dynamic movement and skillful rendering of the female form, though the character of Nydia is now the subject of scholarly criticism.[6] As an enslaved blind woman whose suffering and ultimate death are highly romanticized, she offers an opportunity to interrogate 19th-century conceptions of enslavement, disability, physical and sexual violence, and the gendered ramifications of ecological disaster.

The Missing Staff

Although the sculpture was in excellent condition overall, there was one area of loss that affected the composition: Nydia’s staff was broken just above her right hand. This area would have been quite vulnerable to breakage because it was thin and protruded into space.

Indeed, in nearly all versions of the Nydia sculpture in public collections, the top of the staff is damaged, missing, repaired, or restored. Despite this, there is remarkable consistency between the versions with a restored or intact staff in place. All feature a cylindrical rod extending a few inches above the hand with a round indentation in the top. An image of Rogers’s 1855 plaster model of Nydia shows his original intention for the top of her staff, which matches those of the intact marble versions closely.[7] Some subtle variations exist, but because there were so many versions of Nydia executed in different sizes over a period of decades, this is to be expected.

To Fill or Not to Fill?

As I began to develop a treatment approach, the question of whether to reconstruct the missing top of Nydia’s staff naturally arose. Conservators are often faced with decisions about how far to intervene when devising a treatment plan. Those decisions frequently depend upon complex factors, including the type of object, its context, and what is most important in its story. In some cases, it may be considered appropriate to leave an object in fragmentary condition because of its cultural context. In others, it may be decided to return an object to some semblance of a former state through restoration practices, such as replacing missing parts. In the museum setting, levels of conservation intervention are often decided in collaboration with a curator with expertise on the object’s art historical context. Other experts, such as artists and makers, scientists, and culture bearers, can also play crucial roles in determining the path forward. What is thought of as an appropriate level of intervention inevitably changes over time and from person to person; the decisions we make today may no longer be considered appropriate 50 years from now. This is why conservators often prefer to use stable materials, so a treatment can be reversed or re-treated in the future.

In the case of the Harvard Nydia, multiple factors supported a reconstruction of the missing component. Because the sculpture is otherwise in excellent condition, the loss of the staff is an isolated and comparatively pronounced area of damage. In intact versions, the top of the staff is the sole strong diagonal line in the composition and serves as Nydia’s visual and physical anchor. The missing top creates an abrupt interruption of this line, lessening the strength of Nydia’s forward movement. Most significantly, the abundance of these sculptures in public collections demonstrates the consistency in the appearance of the staff, matching Rogers’s original plaster model. This provided an unusually robust body of evidence characterizing the missing piece’s appearance. Moreover, a reconstruction would be fully reversible and could be easily removed in the future, should the need arise. With these reasons in mind, and with the support of Horace Ballard, the museums’ Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Associate Curator of American Art, I decided to move forward with an experimental process of reconstructing the missing staff tip.

Reconstruction Begins

To reconstruct the staff with a high degree of accuracy, I gathered measurements from versions of Nydia in the same size. I was able to locate one such version of Nydia with an intact, unrepaired staff tip for sale at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, a private art dealer based in New York. Staff at Hirschl Adler generously shared detailed measurements of the staff tip to guide the restoration process. I received a second set of measurements from conservators at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which houses another medium-sized version but with a repaired staff tip. The two sets of measurements were remarkably similar and further reassured me about the consistency in size and shape between sculptures. Notably, the Hirschl & Adler Galleries version featured a v-shaped notch in the top edge of the staff. This notch is present in a few other examples in public collections but absent in most.

With these measurements on hand, I proceeded with tests to determine the best material to use to re-create the staff tip. Perhaps counterintuitively, conservators do not typically use marble as a restoration material. Because every stone is different, sourcing a piece of marble with the exact color and translucency to match Nydia’s would be extremely difficult. Carving marble is a labor-intensive task that requires specialized tools and significant time and effort, and a marble replacement would be more difficult to discern as restoration in the future. I decided to re-create the missing staff tip using materials that mimic the appearance of marble.

After many tests, I created an approximation of the Nydia marble using a conservation-grade epoxy resin with added fillers to adjust the color and opacity. The epoxy I selected is known to exhibit good long-term aging properties and displays minimal yellowing in low-ultraviolet environments, such as that at the Harvard Art Museums. For the filler material, I settled on a mixture of synthetic onyx powder and ground marble dust.

While the bulked epoxy mixture creates a convincing imitation of the marble, it is not a material that conservators typically use directly on the surface of artwork because it can be extremely difficult to remove. To use this material, I needed to cast the epoxy in place with a barrier layer that would protect the marble. This would allow me to remove the fill after curing, to shape it and adjust it, and then adhere it in place onto the sculpture using a reversible adhesive. To do this, I cut a piece of rigid acrylic tubing with an internal diameter that matched that of the missing staff and lined it with a release agent to facilitate removal of the fill. I then covered Nydia’s hand and the broken staff with Teflon sheeting to protect the surface, positioned the tube in place, and sealed the bottom using a non-drying modeling clay. I looped a length of twill tape around the top of the tube and around Nydia’s right arm to prevent the top of the tube from sagging with weight during the drying process. I secured the twill tape with a tautline hitch knot for adjustability. I then mixed up the epoxy and filler mixture and poured it into the tube.

After waiting several days for the mixture to cure, I removed the fill from the tube. I used a Dremel rotary tool to carve out the circular indentation in the top of the staff, whose depth I matched to the measurements from Hirschl & Adler Galleries. I then used fine grit sandpaper to adjust the profile and adhered the fill in place using a reversible adhesive. The final steps were to fill the join line with a reversible acrylic resin and make some final adjustments with paint on the surface of the restoration piece. I chose not to replicate the v-shaped notch seen in the Hirschl & Adler Galleries version, as it seemed like a personal touch of the carver that would be disingenuous to replicate without firm evidence of its existence.

Ultimately, the restored staff tip provides more visual context for Nydia’s dynamic line of movement and gives viewers a better sense of what the sculpture looked like before it was damaged. While the restoration provides a close visual match to the marble, it is detectable upon close visual examination and with an ultraviolet radiation source. If a different approach becomes desirable in the future, the restoration can be easily removed without damaging the marble surface.

Conservation treatment can significantly alter the way viewers perceive and interpret works of art. As such, conservators take measures to ensure that treatment decisions are substantiated with art historical evidence, careful consideration of context and meaning, and a detailed assessment of associated cultural values. The Harvard Nydia provided a unique opportunity to create a restoration based on a firm body of visual evidence, afforded by the sculpture’s widespread popularity and abundance of copies. In her newly restored state, Nydia will continue to inspire visitors as a beloved example of 19th-century American sculpture.

Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii is on view in the west arcade on Level 2.

I want to offer my sincere thanks to Horace Ballard, Nicole Ledoux, Angela Chang, and Sue Costello for their support of this project and to Eric Baumgartner, Bill Blatz, Dorothy Cheng, and Leah Bright for providing comparative measurements.


Adrienne Gendron is the objects conservation fellow in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums.


[1] Lauren Keach Lessing, “‘So Blessed Now That Accustomed Darkness’: Randolph Rogers’s Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii and the Female Gaze,” Bulletin of the University of Michigan Museums of Art and Archaeology 13 (2000): 55.

[2] Joyce K. Schiller, “Nydia: A Forgotten Icon of the Nineteenth Century,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 67 (4) (1993): 42.

[3] Schiller, “Nydia: A Forgotten Icon,” 39.

[4] Lessing, “So Blessed Now,” 55.

[5] Schiller, “Nydia: A Forgotten Icon,” 43.

[6] Helen King, “A History of Our Own? Using Classics in Disability Histories,” in Disability Studies and the Classical Body: The Forgotten Other, ed. Ellen Adams (London: Routledge, 2021), 237–63; Martha Stoddard Holmes, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

[7] Millard F. Rogers, “Nydia, Popular Victorian Image,” Antiques 97 (March 1970): 374.