Category → non-invasive equipment
This is a guest blog post from Stu Borman, a C&EN senior correspondent for science, technology & education.
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 →
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 →
So you’d think that making a replica of a Rembrandt might be frowned upon by the art world, but this copy of “An old man in military costume” has full approval of its owners.
In fact, the folks at the Paul Getty Museum in LA, asked their own intern to replicate the masterpiece as well as the hidden painting beneath it.
It seems that there’s a pretty good reason for making the copy, or “mock-up” as the researchers call it.
For years, museum researchers have known that there’s another painting beneath the military portrait. But they’ve had a tough time getting more than just a faint whiff of the image hidden below using standard analytical methods.
Over the past few years, a new technique called scanning macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) has proven itself useful for uncovering hidden paintings on canvases by Van Gogh, Goya and others.
The question is whether MA-XRF would work for Rembrandt’s military portrait. And specifically, whether a portable X-ray device was powerful enough to do the trick or whether the painting should travel to a more a powerful synchrotron X-ray source, such as in Hamburg (DESY) or at Brookhaven National Labs in New York.
It comes down to the fact that museums don’t like shipping valuable and fragile art around the world unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Enter intern Andrea Sartorius (who I momentarily hoped was a descendent of the 17th century Croatian weight-loss fanatic & innovator, Sanctorius Sanctorius. Sadly the names are not quite the same.)
Anyway, Sartorius painted a copy of the original Rembrandt using the same kind of pigments and binder that he would have used, and she included another portrait below the military one.
Then the copy was shipped around the world to be analyzed using X-rays from the various synchrotron sources and from the portable device. Turns out it’s worth the trip to more snazzy X-ray sources if you want to see the hidden painting below. The team argues in this paper that transporting the Rembrandt to a synchrotron facility is actually “useful and relevant.”
The paper’s lead researcher, Matthias Alfred, praised the mock-up: “It is the first time that a painting was reproduced in such an elaborate way for these tests.” It seems that experiments on mock-ups help museum staff decide whether sending expensive art to outside labs for analysis is worth the risk and effort.
And that, my friends, is how a fake Rembrandt can sometimes be a good thing.
Civilian society constantly makes use of aerospace and military inventions:
Can anyone say the Internet? Or transparent braces? (These nearly invisible dental devices are made from a material called polycrystalline alumina, which was initially developed by NASA “to protect the infrared antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers,” notes Discovery.com)
Cultural heritage also borrows from NASA: Portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) was developed for MARS missions, so that roaming rovers could assess the chemical make-up of rocks on that planet.
Now XRF is a must-have tool for conservation scientists, who want to analyze the chemical composition of art that cannot be transported into a lab, such as a cave painting or Renaissance fresco.
But what about reversing the direction of technology export, so that cultural heritage scientists return the favor by developing new analytical tools for art research that then get delivered to the greater world of science?
This has not happened—until now*. Continue reading →
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.
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. 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 →
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. Continue reading →