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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 →
“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 →
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 →
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!
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.
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
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.
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 →