Category → authentication
“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 →
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 →
“The Mona Lisa Foundation’s mission is to make Leonardo’s ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ known and loved in its own right, as much as the version that hangs in the Louvre Museum.”
This quote comes from the website of a Swiss organization that sent out a press release yesterday announcing it had new scientific proof that a painting of a younger looking Mona Lisa is the first portrait da Vinci made of the famous muse.
And a maelstrom of news followed.
But let’s just be clear about this new scientific proof: It’s the radiocarbon dating of a piece of cloth canvas.
New tests at the Swiss Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH) suggest the canvas cloth was made between 1410 and 1455. Previous dating experiments at Oxford pointed toward the 17th century, which implied the painting was not made by da Vinci, who lived between 1452 and 1519.
Since the canvas cloth date just needs to fall before the production of the painting, the new carbon dating does lend credence to the claims that the artwork could have also been made by da Vinci.
But it’s JUST the dating of the cloth, folks: There’s no proof in the current study that da Vinci actually made the painting. Continue reading →
There’s a great report out about how the British Museum and the Smithsonian teamed up to prove that two crystal skulls, one at each museum, are actually fakes.
Both skulls were purportedly made by Aztecs in Mexico prior to Columbus’ arrival. The British Museum bought its skull from Tiffany and Co. in 1897 while the Smithsonian received its skull in 1960 from an anonymous donor.
Although skulls are common motifs in Aztec art, museum curators at both institutions were suspicious of the skulls for a couple of reasons.
For one, neither skull comes from well-documented official archaeological excavations.
Also something was weird with the teeth.
To quote the report: “The rigid linearity of features representing teeth contrasts with the more precise execution of teeth on pre-Columbian artefacts.”
It sounds like whoever faked the crystal skulls was a little too fond of idealized, modern dentistry. Continue reading →
Over here at C&ENtral Science, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a food chemistry blogging carnival. Artful Science will return to regularly scheduled programming after we manage to digest all the turkey…
“Tea. Earl grey. Hot.”
I never gave much thought to Jean-Luc Picard’s quintessential beverage request from the Star Trek The Next Generation replicator machine until last week.
As I was describing This’ idea of creating food from chemical scratch, one molecule at a time, I suddenly realized that this is pretty much what Picard’s replicator machine had been doing all along on the Enterprise. Continue reading →
Fifty one years ago today, communist officials in East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to stop the exodus of their citizens to capitalist West Berlin.
The 155-km barricade came down 28 years later in 1989, and since then, every self-respecting tourist shop in town sells chunks of spray-painted concrete to anyone seeking a piece of 20th century history.
Today’s price for a chunk of the Wall, as determined during my lunch-time walk to the local tourist shop from my office at the East-West border in Berlin: €4.95 or about $6.10.
You can get a better deal if you buy these cellophane-wrapped mementos from street vendors.
A few years ago, the rather ample supply of German history for sale got Ralf Milke, a geochemist at Berlin’s Free University, wondering whether he could find a way to authenticate pieces of the Wall. Continue reading →
Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF
I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room.
If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF):
When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci.
They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint.
They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense.
And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms.
Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Continue reading →
Pottery found in a Chinese cave near Xianrendong, about 100 kilometers south of the Yangtze River, is 20,000 years old, say Chinese and American researchers.
The announcement pushes back the invention of this craft by 2,000 years, to smack dab in the middle of the last ice age–a time when humans were probably looking for ways to diversify their food supply. (And keep it warm.)
Access to pottery allowed hunter-gathers to do more sophisticated cooking, such as grind grains, ferment alcohol and extract marrow from animal bones, explains Harvard anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, who led the research just published in the journal Science.
“Pottery making introduces a fundamental shift in human dietary history, and Xianrendong demonstrates that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for some 10,000 years before they became sedentary or began cultivating plants,” they note.
That’s right, folks: we’ve been creating pottery for twice as long as we’ve been sowing seeds.