A blogging siesta

Hello Artful Science readers, As you’ve probably noticed, Artful Science has been on hiatus for a few months while I’ve been on a research sabbatical and then working on other projects. It will continue to be on pause until further notice but I hope to resume a new incarnation of Artful Science’s cultural heritage coverage sometime in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, I often tweet about research on art and artifacts, should you wish to follow me in the land of Twitter. All my best from Berlin and thanks for reading,...

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Art conservation that does more harm than good

Hindsight is 20-20, as they say. This week Art Daily* reported that a widespread preservation treatment, developed to help canvases survive humid environments, actually makes paintings more vulnerable when humidity levels soar.** “The wax-resin treatment was enormously popular in Europe and the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s,” says Cecil Krarup Andersen at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, who made the discovery. “Many masterpieces, such as Rembrandts and Van Goghs were preventatively treated with wax-resin linings to help protect the artwork from humidity degradation. The treatment does exactly the opposite.” Anderson has just wrapped up her PhD work on the topic, a research project that began because museum staff at Statens Museum for Kunst were trying to figure out why Danish Golden Age paintings treated with wax-resin were not resisting the insults of time as well as they should. I needed a little background on wax-resin treatment which Andersen kindly provided: It was popularized in the 1800s by a Dutch restorer named Nicolaas Hopman. One of the first masterpieces to be treated was Rembrandt’s Night Watch in 1851. The overall motivation was logical: Hopman thought that coating the back of a canvas with beeswax and an extra layer of canvas would act as a protective support for the painting. Later on, he and others began mixing tree resin in with the wax because it added stiffness. Throughout the 20th century, the treatment gained popularity. Until the 1970s. That’s when conservators started talking about the importance of reversibility, the idea that any conservation treatment on artwork should ideally have an undo button, just in case a treatment turned out to have unforeseen, negative, long-term impacts or in case a better treatment came along sometime in the future. At a conference in Greenwich, England, in 1974, a group of high profile conservators decided that wax-resin treatments were not reversible and should be discontinued, Andersen says. Wax-resin treatments were gradually phased out, but it was too late for thousands of masterpieces that had already faced the hot iron. Initially conservators used irons to melt the wax-resin on to the back of paintings, upon which they adhered the extra canvas layer. Then in the 1950s, specialized heating tables were invented. These tables could uniformly heat the wax-resin and seal the back lining to the painting “in no time,” Andersen says. They made it easy for conservators to overdo it, she says. (As an aside, Andersen says the treatment additionally flattened out the texture in some paintings.) Another reason 1970s conservators became nonplussed with wax-resin was that the treatment actually changed the color of paintings. Sometimes the hot wax and resin would...

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Figuring out what killed crazy Caravaggio

“Caravaggio’s life was even darker than his paintings.” This is how Italian microbiologist Giuseppe Cornaglia began an account of his uphill battle to figure out what microbial pathogen may have killed the famous and violent 16th and 17th century Italian painter, who died under rather curious circumstances in 1610. Cornaglia is part of a growing number of researchers who look into the dental pulp of skulls found in graves, in search of DNA from ancient pandemics. The field is called paleomicrobiology, and it’s been used to figure out what microbes caused the Plague of Athens, which indirectly helped Sparta topple Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and which in turn instigated the decline of classical Greece. Paleomicrobiology has also been used to show that tuberculosis was already in the New World before Columbus showed up carrying a host of other deadly pathogens on board. So, given that Caravaggio died under strange circumstances (more on that in a second), Cornaglia wanted to look at Caravaggio’s remains and see if he could detect the presence of a deadly pathogen in the artist’s dental pulp. Dental pulp harbors the DNA of microbes present in the person at death. The pulp tissue is covered by protective enamel so that contamination from other microbes can’t occur during the intervening centuries, before forensic researchers dig up the skeleton and crack open the tooth. The first problem Cornaglia faced was that he didn’t know where Caravaggio’s remains could be found. This is not entirely surprising when you learn more about the painter. Caravaggio was an angry guy and quick to pull out his sword. During a fight in 1606, at age 35, he tried to castrate his opponent during a street brawl in Rome, Cornaglia said. The castration was successful. But it also killed Caravaggio’s foe, leaving Caravaggio with a murder charge and a life on the run. The experience didn’t reign in Caravaggio’s predilection for violent fights. According to Cornaglia: “The artist’s last years were spent desperately running from one city to another. After stopping by Naples, he travelled to Malta, only to get into trouble after yet another brawl. Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Knights in August 1608 and later expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”… After some time spent in Sicily, unknown assailants attempted to murder Caravaggio in Naples, succeeding in disfiguring his face… Contemporaries described the artist as a madman during this time, exhibiting increasingly strange behavior and exploding into a violent rage at the slightest provocation.” Digression: some researchers have wondered if Caravaggio’s inherent aggression was being exacerbated by lead poisoning, as the dude actually ATE off of...

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How long should conservators protect David Beckham’s football?

It’s a hypothetical question, really, because Beckham has certainly owned a lot of footballs. But let’s just consider the ball that he famously kicked in 1996 from the halfway line, the one that landed spectacularly in Wimbledon’s net and helped make him famous in both the UK and abroad. So you could argue that this ball should end up in a British museum, given Beckham’s huge impact on sports culture in the UK at the turn of the 21st century. Kept under the right temperature, humidity, and light conditions, a leather object like his football could potentially last thousands of years before degrading into a mess of gelatinized protein. But really, should a museum pay the energy bills to keep his ball under optimal relative humidity, light levels and temperature so that it lasts for a millennium or two to come? Will people care about David Beckham’s ball in 50, 100, or even 500 years? What about other cultural heritage objects, such as Albert Einstein’s papers? Or a Van Gogh painting? Or an Ansel Adams photograph? In other words, long should museum or archive collections be expected to last? In principle “we’ve been working on the premise of forever. But that’s actually not realistic. Nothing lasts forever,” said Paula De Priest, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. Last Thursday, De Priest and other cultural heritage researchers met in London to discuss the development of new ways to realistically assess and predict the lifetime of art and artifacts. This new field of conservation science is called collections demography and it aims to make quantitative predictions about the possible and probable lifetimes of cultural heritage objects under different storage and display conditions. The idea is to use mathematical risk algorithms to model the possible lifetimes of museum and archive collections, explained the University College London’s Matija Strlič, a collections demography researcher and the workshop’s host. As energy costs rise and cultural heritage budgets tighten, these mathematical models will hopefully allow museum and archive staff to make informed, evidence-based decisions about how best to divvy up resources or what conservation strategies will keep a collection in good condition for a particular amount of time. Strlič’s team is developing Excel-based spreadsheets that would allow museum staff to predict the possible lifetimes of museum or archive collections under various future scenarios. For example, the lifetime of a paper document will depend on the relative humidity and temperature of storage, how much light, pollution and handling the paper is subjected to, and what the paper’s pH is. If you input specific storage and display conditions of a paper collection, the software predicts what...

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Was antiquity really so tacky?

The ancient Greeks did it, and now the Phoenicians too. Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that many of the white marble statues from Greece’s golden era were originally painted in garish colors. The discovery of pigment residues on a multitude of classical era sculpture has been a boon for lovers of kitsch and a downer for pretty much everybody else. Yeah yeah, I know it’s good to know The Truth, and it is fascinating that they had such bad taste but, well… Sigh. So it turns out that the Phoenicians, an ancient Semitic seafaring civilization who traveled around the Mediterranean from about 1500 BC to 300 BC, also painted and gilded their carvings. The Phoenicians invented an alphabet later adopted by the Greeks. One wonders if the Greeks also got their predilection for painting sculptures from the Phoenicians? A team of French and German researchers analyzed the surface of several Phoenician ivory sculptures held at the Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe, in Germany, and found metal traces corresponding to ancient pigments and (gold) gilding. These metal traces are invisible to the naked eye, but can be detected using a technique called X-ray fluorescence. Ina Reich, the lead researcher of the Analytical Chemistry paper reporting the discovery, says she’s also found the same type of metal residues on Phoenician pieces at the Louvre–work which will be published elsewhere in the future. (I wrote a more science-y news article on the discovery here.) For the lovers of nanoscience out there, here’s a teaser: Reich also mentioned that some of the traces of leftover gold from Phoenician gilding had formed curious gold nanoparticles on the surface of the ivory after spending centuries underground. Reich is currently analyzing the gold nanoparticles, which she says would be impossible for forgers to emulate and thus may be a new cool new way to authenticate Phoenician...

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