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Rare Aztec Document Gets A Check-Up

The first page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, a rare Aztec document painted on deer-skin prior to Cortez's conquest. Credit: Liverpool World Museum.

In 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish invaders, who burned libraries and destroyed most of the manuscripts pertaining to Aztec history, religious rituals and economy.

The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is one of just two dozen or so Aztec texts to survive the Spanish invasion.

It’s also just one of just six screenfold books that were penned before Cortez started his conquest of Mexico’s indigenous people.

So suffice to say that it’s a pretty exceptional record of the pre-Spanish Mesoamerican world.

This codex is called a screenfold book because Aztec scholars would literally twist and fold the 22-page, double-sided document to cross-reference a particular date to two calendar cycles: the yearly cycle of 365 days and the sacred cycle of 260 days (called tonalpohualli).

Joanna Ostapkowicz, a curator at the World Museum in Liverpool, which hosts Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, explains it in this way:

“In the hands of ritual practitioners and other high-ranking individuals, the codex became a guide for people’s actions. The screenfold’s internal reading structure is right to left and is determined by the number-and-sign sets of the calendar: how the images and symbols cross-referenced each other was then interpreted by the reader, who was well versed in the significance of the various icons. Although an object of great respect, the codex was also a tactile, malleable reference tool: a user could consult both sides simultaneously by folding parts of the codex onto itself. Reading it offered guidance on appropriate days to travel, to celebrate a deity’s beneficence with sacrifices, to plant crops or to name a child.”

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Think You Can Identify A Van Eyck?

Three Maries At The Tomb

by a Van Eyck brother, or possibly both.

Many art historians have eyed Three Maries At The Tomb

and agreed that it’s a Van Eyck. What’s debated is whether Jan painted the artwork or whether it was his older brother Hubert. Or more likely, whether the painting was a sibling collaboration.

For example, the brothers both worked on the famous Ghent Altarpiece: An inscription on the back says it was started by Hubert and finished by Jan, six years after Hubert’s death.

However, art historians debate which brother had a greater influence on the paintings in the Ghent Altarpiece. Did Jan humbly follow his older brother’s stylistic lead or did Jan turn the artwork into a masterpiece with his own artistic flair? Continue reading →

Post At Newscripts On Lavoisier Portrait

It’s not exactly conservation-related, but I’ve added a post to the Newscripts blog that may appeal to Artful Science Readers. It’s about the fascinating provenance of an iconic portrait of pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his wife.

Christians Artists Embellished Spain’s Muslim Paintings

The interior paintings of Granada's Madrasah Yusufiyya in Spain date from 1349. Credit: Carolina Cardell.

For nearly 800 years, the Islamic Moors occupied Spain, building extraordinary buildings that still draw hordes of tourists today. Case in point: the Alhambra.

Less well known is the Madrasah Yusufiyya of Granada, the only Islamic university from the Moorish era left standing in Spain. It was built in 1349 and operated for about 150 years, until the Christians conquered the region in the late 1400s.

The lovely Madrasah Yusufiyya was then used extensively by the Christians, most likely as administration buildings, says Carolina Cardell a conservation scientist at the University of Granada.

In fact the Christians liked the building so much, Cardell says, that in the last 500 years they have done a lot of touching up, repainting, restoring and embellishing of paintings covering the stucco and wooden interior walls of the Madrasah Yusufiyya.

Yet art historians haven’t really known the extent of these interventions. So over the past few years, while the Madrasah Yusufiyya has been under restoration, Cardell and her team of scientists took a closer look at the paintings with a suite of analytical technology. She’s just published a paper in Analytical Chemistry about the interventions to the Madrasah Yusufiyya over the past 500 years. Continue reading →

When Acrylic Paints Get A Spa Day

Andy Warhol's acrylic portrait of Brooke Hayward needed the surfactant that had exited the painting to be cleaned off. Conservation scientists used surface imaging technology to monitor the cleaning process. Credit: MOLAB.

When acrylic paint was introduced in the late 1940s it was a boon for artists with a penchant for instant gratification: Acrylics dry within hours, compared to the weeks and sometimes months it takes for oil paint to completely harden.

But few things in life are perfect, and acrylic paint is no exception. In order to keep pigments stable in the acrylic polymer base, paint makers had to include additives called surfactants. Unfortunately, after a few years or decades, the surfactants get itchy feet and rise out of the paint to the surface of the artwork.

Once there, these surfactants can leave a white film on priceless paintings and they can also be sticky, attracting dirt and grime to the artwork.

In this week’s C&EN, my colleague Celia Arnaud digs deep in to acrylic paint chemistry and talks with conservation scientists about what they do to remedy the problem of wandering surfactant.

Unfortunately, many existing solvents that might be used to clean off the surface of acrylic artworks tend to make the paint swell… This makes museum staff nervous because it’s not clear what long term consequence come from this swelling. Another problem is that solvents that don’t cause acrylic paints to swell aren’t typically good cleaners.

That’s why researchers at the Tate Galleries in London, the Getty Conservation Institute in LA and the DOW chemical company have teamed up to try and find a solvent that cleans but does not swell acrylic paint. At the same time researchers at the University of Delaware are working with Golden Artist Colors, a paint company, to work out good cleaning conditions for acrylic paintings.

If these researchers hit paydirt, acrylic paintings around the world will finally get that facial treatment they’ve all been needing.

Keeping Visitors Out To Keep Cave Paintings Safe

Guest post from Carmen Drahl, a C&EN’s Associate Editor and Haystack blogger.

Overview of the best preserved area of the famous Polychrome Chamber in Altamira Cave. At the end are members of the research team and micro-environmental monitoring station. © MNCN-CSIS, Spain

Growing up, I spent every summer in northern Spain, living in my grandmother’s Oviedo flat and wandering the city and surrounding villages with distant cousins. One of my greatest regrets is never having taken the 3 hour drive to what my grandma called “las Cuevas de Altamira”, the storied caves and UNESCO World Heritage Site that house some of the world’s most striking examples of Paleolithic art.

The caves have been closed to visitors on and off since their discovery in the late 1870s. But they’ve been shuttered indefinitely since 2002, because microbial colonies encroached on the priceless scenes of bison and deer on the stone ceilings. Government officials in Cantabria, the Spanish autonomous community where the cave is situated, would like to reopen Altamira to tourists. Today, in a policy forum in the journal Science (DOI:10.1126/science.1206788), researchers led by Cesareo Saiz-Jimenez from the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), argue that would be a bad idea. The team, which has been dealing with the microscopic invaders firsthand, says that letting visitors back into the cave’s fragile ecosystem would quickly undo any good that the closure has done and could cause irreparable damage. Continue reading →

Using A Digital Light Projector To Restore Mark Rothko Paintings

Different versions of the same painting. Left: the Rothko painting in its faded form. Middle: The ektachrome photo that had turned too red with time. Right: The painting color-corrected back to 1963. (Apologies for the distorted shot. I was sitting off-center from the PPT projection.)

One of the coolest talks I saw at the ICOM-CC conference in Lisbon last week came from Jens Stenger, a conservation scientist at the Harvard Art Museums in Boston. He had the tricky task of figuring out what to do about five paintings by Mark Rothko in the museum’s collection that were so damaged from sunlight exposure that crimson paint on the canvas had turned to blue.

If just a tiny corner of the paintings were light damaged, museum staff might have considered retouching the artwork with a little paint. But a massive fraction of the massive panels were seriously light-damaged.

And these days the trend in art conservation is to minimize interventions on art, especially contemporary art. So a team of curators, conservators and scientists decided that, “repainting was NOT the way to go,” Stenger said.

But everyone thought museum visitors would want to know how the artwork had looked before the light damage. So what to do?

The solution Stenger came up with is pretty cool: Figure out the exact coloration of the originals. Display the artwork as is, but set up a digital light projector that can cast an image on to the canvases. This projected image temporarily makes the paintings appear as they did when Rothko finished them in 1963. Switch off the projector and the paintings are returned to their current-day states. It’s effectively restoration with an undo button. (And as an aside, the amount of light delivered by the projector is not sufficient to continue to harm the painting.)
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Greening Up Conservation Science

My pedestrian Photoshop attempt to give an Egyptian sculpture a greener feel. With apologies to Amenhotep III and thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

Cultural heritage is important so valuable art and artifacts should be protected at any cost, right?

Not so, says May Cassar, the director of the Center for Sustainable Heritage at University College London.

Most museum, galleries and archives take it as a given that air conditioning and pollution filtration are a must for keeping valuable collections in comfortable living conditions, she says.

“But air conditioning and particularly pollution filtration come at a very high cost–not only to institutional budgets but also from an environmental point of view” because fossil fuels are consumed to drive these systems, Cassar explains. “To me it is a double standard to damage the environment outside but protect the environment inside for collections.”

She’s trying to encourage people in cultural conservation careers to consider the environment outside–and not just around valuable collections.

So for example, Cassar advocates that museums in temperate climates–such as the UK–accept some minor risks to collections if there is a possible gain for the environment. For example, a museum might normally use air conditioning to keep humidity in between 50-60%. If the building’s internal humidity would normally only ever range from 40-65%, reaching the outer extremes only rarely, it could be fine for the museum to eschew humidity control without substantially increasing risk to the collection, she says.

Of course, it’s true that some museums don’t have the luxury of a temperate climate… Consider the soul-destroying humidity of Washington DC’s summer months (I barely survived two of them), or the corrosion potential from the high salt concentrations found in the air around ocean-side museums, or the problem New York City’s sooty air pollution raises for valuable collections.

But there may be other ways for museum, archive and gallery staff to go green.
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