Tag Archives: University of Rochester (NY)

Seeing beneath the surface; ancient Roman revealed in wall painting at the Louvre

Here’s a fascinating tale about art and hidden mysteries told at the 245th meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) taking place Apr. 7 – 11, 2013, from the Apr. 10, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

J. Bianca Jackson, Ph.D., who reported on the project, explained that it involved a fresco [located at the Louvre Museum in Paris], which is a mural or painting done on a wall after application of fresh plaster. In a fresco, the artist’s paint seeps into the wet plaster and sets as the plaster dries. The painting becomes part of the wall. The earliest known frescoes date to about 1500 B.C. and were found on the island of Crete in Greece.

“No previous imaging technique, including almost half a dozen commonly used to detect hidden images below paintings, forged signatures of artists and other information not visible on the surface has revealed a lost image in this fresco,” Jackson said. “This opens to door to wider use of the technology in the world of art, and we also used the method to study a Russian religious icon and the walls of a mud hut in one of humanity’s first settlements in what was ancient Turkey.”

Here’s the technology they used to discover the figure hidden in the fresco,

… Termed terahertz spectroscopy, it uses beams of electromagnetic radiation that lie between microwaves, like those used in kitchen ovens, and the infrared rays used in TV remote controls. This radiation is relatively weak, does not damage paintings and does not involve exposure to harmful radiation.

“Terahertz technology has been in use for some time, especially in quality control in the pharmaceutical industry to assure the integrity of pills and capsules, in biomedical imaging and even in homeland security with those whole-body scanners that see beneath clothing at airport security check points,” said Jackson, who is now with the University of Rochester. “But its use in examining artifacts and artworks is relatively new.”

The scientists turned to terahertz technology when suspicions surfaced that a hidden image might lie beneath the brushstrokes of a precious 19th century fresco, Trois hommes armés de lances, in the Louvre’s Campana collection. …

To search for a hidden image, Jackson and colleagues, including Gerard Mourou, Ph.D., of Ècole Polytechnique, and Michel Menu, Ph.D., of the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, and Vincent Detalle, of the Laboratoire Recherche des Monuments Historiques, probed it with terahertz technology. The process is slow, requiring a few hours to analyze a section the size of a sheet of paper.

“We were amazed, and we were delighted,” said Jackson. “We could not believe our eyes as the image materialized on the screen. Underneath the top painting of the folds of a man’s tunic, we saw an eye, a nose and then a mouth appear. We were seeing what likely was part of an ancient Roman fresco, thousands of years old.”

Who is the man in the fresco? An imperial Roman senator? A patrician? A plebian? A great orator? A ruler who changed the course of history? Or just a wealthy, egotistical landowner who wanted to admire his image on the wall?

Jackson is leaving those questions to art historians.

For anyone interested in Campana,

Giampietro Campana was an Italian art collector in the 1800s whose treasures are now on display in museums around the world. When Campana acquired a work of art, he sometimes restored damaged parts or reworked the original. Art historians believe that Campana painted Trois hommes armés de lances after the fresco was removed from its original wall in Italy and entered his collection.

Campana’s practice of restoring and reworking the original was not unusual for the time,

Artists, including some of the great masters, sometimes re-used canvases, wiping out the initial image or covered old paintings with new works. They often did this in order to avoid the expense of buying a new canvas or to enhance colors and shapes in a prior composition. Frescoes likewise got a refresh, especially when the originals faded, owners tired of the image on the wall or property changed hands.

This project was funded in part by CHARISMA [Cultural Heritage Advanced Research Infrastructure; Synergy for a Multidisciplinary Approach to Conservation/Restoration] as part of the European Union’s Framework Programme 7 (FP 7). This project called to mind the NanoForArt FP7 funded project I mentioned in the context of a Mar. 1, 2013 posting about cave art, frescos, and other examples of rock art and how nanotechnology is enabling conservation and restoration.

In any event, it’s nice to find out that those airport scanners are good for something other than delaying your trip and subjecting you and your knickers to inspection.