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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 →

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.

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 →

The two Mona Lisas debate – Everybody take a breath now.

The two Mona Lisas: Left: the putative young upstart. Right: The Louvre Classic. Credit: Mona Lisa Foundation

The two Mona Lisas: Left: the putative young upstart. Right: The Louvre Classic. Credit: Mona Lisa Foundation

“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 →

Fake crystal Aztec skulls

A fake crystal Aztec skull

A fake crystal Aztec skull

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 →

Star Trek Replicators, Dystopian Futures, And The #foodchem Carnival

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…

Jean Luc drinking his signature tea

“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.

I was talking with some friends about an article I had just filed with my editor about note-by-note cuisine. It’s the new passion of Hervé This, one of the co-founders of molecular gastronomy.

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 →

Annals of Quirkiness: Space Buddha Taken By Nazis.

This sculpture was carved from a meteorite that fell to Earth 10,000-20,000 years ago. Credit: Wiley

Ancient Egyptians made necklaces from meteorites, the Inuit used these extra-terrestrial rocks as an iron source but this is the world’s first space Buddha.

Researchers in Germany led by Elmar Buchner are reporting that a sculpture of the Buddhist god Vaiśravana was carved out of a meteorite fragment that fell to Earth near the border of Siberia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.

It’s the first known example of a religious sculpture carved from a meteorite, said the researchers to the Newscientist’s Colin Barras, who wrote the best of many news stories on the discovery (IMHO).

And that’s not all: The 24-centimeter tall statue “had a colourful past. It was apparently brought to Germany in 1939 by a Nazi-backed archaeological expedition to search for the roots of Aryanism. A swastika on the armoured Buddha’s breastplate may have been a motivating factor in bringing the statue to Germany,” writes Barras.

Buchner and his team proved the statue was made from a meteorite by comparing the relative levels of iron, nickel, cobalt, chromium, gallium and germanium to these elements in pieces of the Chinga ataxite meteorite.

(Incidentally, the Chinga meteorite’s 250 odd fragments were discovered in 1913 at Tanna-Tuva, which has gorgeous stamps and is now a quirky autonomous nation between Russia and Mongolia run by a former sports instructor named Sholban Kara-ool.¬)

But I digress. The only thing that could make this Nazi-seized, space Buddha discovery better is if it becomes the basis for a sequel to Iron Sky, the awesomely terrible (and by this I mean campy great) movie about Nazis on the moon.

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. Continue reading →