Fashion Fights In The 1600s: Parents Just Don’t Understand Their Kids’ Clothing Styles

Fashion trends come and go but one thing stays the same: Kids and parents often don’t see eye-to-eye on style. Even in 17th-century Amsterdam. A great example of this was recently unearthed by University of Delft researcher, Margriet van Eikema Hommes, when she took a closer look at paintings by the Dutch artist Govert Flinck. Flinck was a pupil of Rembrandt, but he had more commercial success than his teacher. Case in point: When Amsterdam’s new town hall was built in the mid 1600s, it featured several Flinck works but only one by Rembrandt, and this lone Rembrandt painting was removed after a year, van Eikema Hommes says. Flinck’s success was probably due to his strong familial connections to Amsterdam’s wealthy Mennonite community, who became his regular patrons. And therein lies the interesting historical fashion-friction. It turns out that Amsterdam’s Mennonite community favored solemn, dark outfits. Meanwhile 17th-century cool kids wore colorful tights. (Much as modern-day hipsters opt for brightly colored stockings...) In fact, some members of the Mennonite congregation would strike out against members who wore less conservative, fashionable clothing—clothing that the Mennonites considered indecent, van Eikema Hommes explains. Against this cultural backdrop, Flinck was asked to paint a portrait of his young Mennonite nephew Dirck. If you look at the final version of the portrait from 1636, the nephew looks pretty much like a conservative young Mennonite. But looks can be deceiving. When van Eikema Hommes started to analyze the portrait with X-rays, she discovered that beneath the painting was another portrait of Dirck (see the black and white image). The original portrait has Dirck in a left-foot-forward, aristocratic posture (compared to Dirck’s more somber pose in the final version), and the original has Dirck wearing substantially less conservative clothing. In particular, Flinck initially painted his nephew in a wider brimmed, fashionable hat, wearing a shirt with a wider, stylish collar and red tights instead of black ones. You can tell the tights were red in two ways, van Eikema Hommes says. First, you can actually see the red paint shimmering through the top layer of the artwork. But more conclusively, using X-ray fluorescence, she detected mercury on the artwork right where the legs were initially painted... and a common red paint of that era was vermillion, a mercury-based paint. So why did Flick paint over the original, fashionable portrait of Dirck? Probably because Flinck, Dirck or both men got cold feet about offending their Mennonite family members—and Flinck’s patrons. In the words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Parents just don’t understand.” “There was nothing I could do, I tried to relax I got...

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Authenticating Pieces Of The Berlin Wall

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. Since then he’s developed a technique that uses X-ray diffraction to confirm whether a supposed chunk of the Berlin Wall is indeed genuine. Milke did a series of X-ray diffraction experiments with definitely authentic pieces of the wall to get fingerprint spectra of several elements found in the Berlin Wall concrete, such as silicon from the quartz or calcium from the calcite used to make concrete. He also found that all the fingerprint spectra of Berlin Wall samples have an unusual mark. It’s probably a trace mineral found in the quarry in Rüdersdorf, near Berlin, where the calcite used in the Wall was mined, Milke explains. Exactly what that trace mineral or metal is remains a mystery, but if the unusual mark doesn’t show up in the x-ray diffraction experiment, then the chunk of concrete isn’t a piece of the Berlin Wall, Milke asserts. “It’s an easy yes or no answer,” he says. Milke has tried to get a little Berlin Wall authentication business going, but so far only a handful of people have been willing to pay the €5 he charges to verify samples. That hasn’t stopped him from testing the wares of Berlin Wall vendors around town, he says. Some of the more fraudulent vendors don’t even use concrete when they create Berlin Wall fakes. Of course if these petty crooks want to evolve into criminal masterminds, they could find a way to use calcite from the Rüdersdorf quarry to mix their own concrete, and thus produce a fake that cannot be identified by Milke’s method. But pieces of the wall—fake or real—are still pretty inexpensive. So I’d wager that it may be a while yet before it’s financially worthwhile for that level of criminal conspiracy to seep into Berlin’s tourist keepsake...

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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. But cultural heritage scientists are doing this and much much more: They’re helping to conserve and restore everything from spacesuits to plastic sculptures. 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: Matija Strlič is a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage. He’s involved in all sorts of fascinating projects, from the AHRC/EPSRC-funded Heritage Smells!, which is about detecting the chemical makeup of gases emanating off artifacts to figure out degradation taking place inside, to the EU Joint Programming Initiative called ‘Cultural Heritage and Global Change.’ He’s developing technology to visualize damage in art and artifacts before it is visible to the naked eye. Costanza Miliani is a staff researcher at Italy’s CNR Institute for Molecular Science and Technologies. She’s also responsible  for MOLAB Transnational Access, an EU-funded, roving crew of conservation scientists that travel around Europe providing scientific support to museums and galleries around the continent. In the last couple of years, MOLAB has worked on everything from frescoes in Florence's Santa Croce Basilica, to Van Gogh's sunflowers in Amsterdam and rare Aztec documents in Liverpool. In her own research, Miliani develops new non-invasive analytical technologies to study dyes, pigments, binders and their breakdown products. Philippe Walter has been a long-time scientist at the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France, a research facility located underneath the Louvre in Paris. He’s now taken an academic post at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie. Walter has been involved in a potpourri of interesting projects: From researching the Mona Lisa’s complexion using non-invasive, portable technology, to recreating ancient recipes for ancient Egyptian and Grecian cosmetics. Leo...

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Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics. Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain's El Castillo and Altamira caves. The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists. Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.) This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. In 2010, he was first author on a PNAS paper that reported a cache of painted marine shells on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain that were produced by Neanderthals.  These shells were dated to 50,000 years ago, about 10,000 years before early humans showed up in Europe. The shells contain mineral pigment makeup that required some skill and know-how to produce. (The makeup was composed of fool’s gold, aka pyrite, and ground hematite, which can be red and black, all mixed in to a base of the rust-colored mineral, lepidocrocite) Not only did this research show Neanderthals were chemists, but it also suggests they painted themselves and wore jewelry. Of course, it’ll take many more of these discoveries before the entire research community is convinced that Neanderthals weren’t as dumb as we thought. (I’m reminded that history is written by the winners—us humans.) In fact, the other cool part of the current Science paper is that Zilhão and his colleague Alex Pike in Bristol used an uncommon technique to date the cave paintings. This method could be used to accurately determine the age of many more cave paintings, which could help provide additional evidence that Neanderthals were relatively civilized—or not. Since radiocarbon dating is not reliable for determining the age of cave art, the scientists relied on a method that measures the levels of uranium and thorium found in calcite crusts that build up on top of the cave art. (Calcite is the same mineral in stalagmites and stalactites.) Trace amounts of uranium but not thorium are found in the water that deposits the calcite on top of the art. Since uranium...

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Finding The Culprit For Van Gogh’s Darkening Yellows

The Sunflower still-life series is possibly Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work. Unfortunately the warm yellow hues that make the paintings memorable come from pigments that don’t have a long life-expectancy. During the 19th century, chrome yellow pigments came in to fashion among painters and then quickly went out again, as artists realized that the vibrant yellow color was unstable and would lose its vibrancy when exposed to light. For example, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir both steered clear of the chrome yellow pigments. But van Gogh threw caution to the wind and continued to use chrome yellow until his suicide in 1890—a tragic hint, perhaps, of his own instability and imminent breakdown. This week, conservation scientists at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have been taking a closer look at chrome yellow pigments in Vase with Sunflower, and a few other paintings, to learn more about the degradation problem. The museum’s staff has recruited a group of traveling conservation scientists from Perugia, Italy, called MOLAB to come help out. (MOLAB has a sophisticated collection of analytical equipment that can study artwork without harming it.) It’s not the first time MOLAB has worked on the chrome yellow issue. Last year, they worked with almost the same team of van Gogh experts to discover why chrome yellow turns from bright yellow to a dingy brown in the presence of sunlight. Here's why: Chrome yellow pigment is primarily lead chromate (which, incidentally, is the pigment for yellow school buses and was also briefly used to color candy in the 1800s—yikes!). Different yellow hues can be made by mixing in lead chromate oxide and lead chromate sulfate. The darkening of the yellow paint occurs because the chromium in the pigment is reduced from a hexavalent (Cr6+) to a tetravalent (Cr3+) state. The team also reported that sulfur compounds in the paint seem to exacerbate the process. The sulfur is probably present from lead chromate sulfate added to modulate the yellow hue. MOLAB has been back in Amsterdam this week to study more van Gogh paintings, says Costanza Miliani, a lead researcher with MOLAB. The plan is to see if sulfur is indeed a culprit in chrome yellow degradation. Hopefully the team will eventually find a way to thwart and reverse this breakdown so that van Gogh’s vibrant yellows aren’t lost...

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Stinky, Degrading Film And How To Stop It

Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it. Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks. In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.) For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi. Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick. That’s why the UK’s North West Film Archive approached researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to ask if there was any way to build a machine to detect the problematic odors. Last week, MMU’s Craig Banks and his collaborator Gavin Bingley reported a handy new mold flatulence detection device. With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.) Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye. It’s worth pointing out that even if mold is kept at bay, old degrading film produces its own special brand of harmful flatulence. The first kinds of film were made from cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate. In addition to being flammable, these kinds of plastic degrade in the presence of light, heat and air to produce nitric acid and acetic acid. Both of these molecules can become airborne, where they float around and catalyze degradation in nearby, otherwise unsuspecting film. It’s what conservators call the “vinegar syndrome” – primarily because acetic acid is vinegar and degrading film smells like a salad freshly tossed in vinaigrette. Conservators try to delay film breakdown in two ways. First, by keeping film archive temperatures low, which slows down degradation reactions. Second, by keeping archives well aerated and/or by capturing acetic and nitric acid. Now it seems, conservators will have a third way to help keep old film by being destroyed. Here’s what amuses me: Film is a form of art that appeals to our eyes (and sometimes) ears, but it is our noses that are petitioned when film is under...

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