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A blogging siesta

The Siesta, by Vincent van Gogh, was painted in 1890. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Siesta, by Vincent van Gogh, was painted in 1890. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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,

Sarah

Art conservation that does more harm than good

The Night Watch by Rembrandt is one of thousands of paintings to receive the wax-resin treatment. Credit: Wikimedia commons

The Night Watch by Rembrandt is one of thousands of paintings to receive the wax-resin treatment. Credit: Wikimedia commons

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. Continue reading →

Figuring out what killed crazy Caravaggio

Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of St Andrew, made in 1607 when the artist was on the run. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of St Andrew, made in 1607 when the artist was on the run. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“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. Continue reading →

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. Continue reading →

Was antiquity really so tacky?

Many Greek sculptures were painted garish colors. Credit: Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

Many Greek sculptures were painted garish colors. Credit: Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

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?

This lion's face had traces of iron painted around its mouth, nose and eyebrows, but nowhere else. The iron most likely corresponds to red iron oxide pigments.

This lion’s face had traces of iron painted around its mouth, nose and eyebrows, but nowhere else. The iron most likely corresponds to red iron oxide pigments.

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 ivory.

A brief hiatus: Onwards to Uzbekistan

Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

My apologies for a few weeks hiatus over here at Artful Science.

Last summer I got married and we are finally off on our honeymoon to Uzbekistan (aka the honeystan) where we will explore some awesome Silk Road architecture.

Given that we’ll be looking at a lot of mosaics, I thought I’d point you to this post on the conservation of tile art and the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

See you at the end of April…

Gold gilding, ancient amber and a mysterious hidden sculpture: A new cultural heritage journal launches!

This gold gilding at the Reales Alcazares of Sevilla was added in the 19th century.

This gold gilding at the Reales Alcazares of Sevilla was added in the 19th century.

There’s beautiful gold gilding at Reales Alcazares royal palace in Seville, Spain.

Yet it turns out that the pretty gold gilding you see in the image on the left is not precisely original.

The World Heritage Site was originally built in 914 AD, and then expanded from the 14th to the 16th century.

Recently, Spanish researchers found a layer of paint lying below the gold gilding that contains lead chromate, a pigment that wasn’t used until the 19th century. So the gold lying above must have been added afterwards.

Yellow lead chromate pigment is responsible for the bright color of many old school buses, and it was even used as a colorant for yellow candy before falling out of favor because both lead and chromate are extremely toxic.

Cross section showing gold gilding on top and yellow lead chromate paint below.

Cross section showing gold gilding on top and yellow lead chromate paint below.

Spanish researchers report that the lead chromate layer was added sometime after 1818 above a deteriorated layer gold gilding, probably as part of a 19th century restoration project.

The lead chromate may have been painted on as false gold to keep up appearances before new gold gilding could be applied.

Or it’s possible that the lead chromate was painted on just before the new gold gilding: The paint may have acted as a foundation layer to help the new gold gilding adhere.

This conundrum is reported in the inaugural issue of Heritage Science, the first peer-reviewed journal to focus entirely on cultural heritage science. (Welcome!!)

This 7th century BC amber found in an Italian tomb originally came from the Baltic area even though Italy had its own sources of amber.

This 7th century BC amber found in an Italian tomb originally came from the Baltic area even though Italy had its own sources of amber.

There’s a variety of interesting topics reported in the journal’s first edition, including a way to determine the geographical origin of amber which provides clues about early trading roots of the fossilized tree resin.

There’s also an analysis of medieval Hungarian silver coins, and several papers on the effects of pollution and humidity on cultural heritage objects, from ancient architecture to antique books.

The issue also contains a cool paper about a sculpture accidentally discovered behind a wall of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace in 2010.

The sculpture, called Fugitive Slave and made by the Russian artist Vladimir Beklemishev, was inspired by the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was initially exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and then sent to Russia before being hidden in the palace wall after the sculpture suffered heavy damage during World War Two.

The sculpture was made to look like bronze, even though it is definitely not bronze.

That’s why the scientists are keen to study its make-up: The pseudo bronze involves creative use of gypsum, iron, copper and arsenic.

But perhaps the most interesting read in the inaugural issue of Heritage Science is the very pointed essay by journal editor Richard Brereton.

Brereton does not mince words about the devastating effect of 20th century progress on cultural heritage. He begins with his hometown of Bristol, where “post-war planners destroyed more of Bristol than [World War 2] bombs” and goes on to decry lost heritage in other parts of Europe, Asia and the Americas.

“Capitalists, aristocrats, democrats and communists were all at it in the twentieth century, destroying a heritage that had evolved very slowly for centuries. In the past there had been waves of localized destruction, for example in Rome, the Popes raided marble from the Coliseum in order to construct new churches, and in Latin America, the Spanish conquistadors organised a mass destruction of Inca, Aztec and many other cultural artefacts – for example there are only fragments of Aztec written texts available due to the enthusiastic destruction of material by priests. But the twentieth century appears unique for a mass international desecration of our global historic heritage. Most governments were dependent on some sort of political support, even tyrants have to feed their armies, and people wanted hot water in the homes and good food on the table and washing machines and televisions rather than fine paintings and important buildings.”

Here’s to reading more in Heritage Science about how 21st century science can inform efforts to conserve what’s not been destroyed in the 20th century.

Daisies, frankincense, mint, and mercury help preserve Richard the Lionheart’s heart

This is a guest blog post from Stu Borman, a C&EN senior correspondent for science, technology & education.

The tomb of Richard I’s heart in Notre Dame of Rouen, France. Credit: walwyn—professor-moriarty.com

The tomb of Richard I’s heart in Notre Dame of Rouen, France. Credit: walwyn—professor-moriarty.com

A French-based research team recently had a rare opportunity to get to the heart—quite literally—of some 12th century European history.

Using a battery of scientific equipment, they took a closer look at how the heart of English king Richard I was preserved for posterity.

Also known as Richard the Lionheart because of his military prowess, Richard I was king of England from 1189 to 1199.

He led a Crusade to the Holy Land in 1190, but the mission failed to take Jerusalem, its main objective.

On the way back home he was imprisoned by an Austrian duke and the German emperor and then only released after payment of what was literally a king’s ransom. Continue reading →

Photo fraud: eBay to the rescue!

Ansel Adams took The Tetons and the Snake River in 1942. Credit: National Archives

Ansel Adams took The Tetons and the Snake River in 1942. Credit: National Archives

In the 1990s the market for photos exploded. As snapshots started selling for millions of dollars, sham photos also slipped into the fray before the art world had any way to authenticate originals.

And so cultural heritage researchers had to play some serious catch-up, and quickly.

That’s the gist of my recent cover story on photo conservation. It explores how two fraud cases helped turn the field from a niche research area to a mature science.

And as always happens when reporting, many cool tidbits didn’t fit in to the final piece… In this case, the pivotal role eBay played to help researchers develop ways to catch fakes.

But first, a bit of background on photo fraud:

In the photo market, people will pay more money for an image when it was actually printed on paper by the photographer himself or herself. The price can also increase when the print is older.

So, for example, the Getty Conservation Institute’s Art Kaplan told me that an Ansel Adams photograph printed in the 1920s can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the exact same photograph printed a few decades later (say, the 1970s) can sell for just tens of thousands of dollars. Continue reading →

Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils.

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils found in Chile.

These may look like real fossils, but they are actually perfect plastic replicas of 2 million-year-old whale skeletons made using a 3D printer.

This printing technology, which can create 3D versions of objects as diverse as a guns or the brain of a man with no memory, was hyped last week by President Obama when he said that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

The technology certainly saved the day for Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson.

Pyenson had been finishing up a research trip in Chile in 2011 when he decided to check out a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert where workers had supposedly uncovered dozens and dozens of whale skeletons.

“I didn’t really believe the rumors at first,” Pyenson says. But when he arrived, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Pyenson described the experience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

Local museum officials were racing to dig out the skeletons before highway workers paved over the area, Pyenson says. Although the skeletons clearly needed to be removed, a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost. Continue reading →