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Mobile Laboratory Goes Into Museums

Researchers analyze precious artworks

By Massimiliano Russano
Epoch Times Staff
Created: June 30, 2012 Last Updated: July 12, 2012
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Molab, a mobile laboratory developed in Italy, provides noninvasive analytic methods for studying artworks—here a painting by Caravaggio—without removing them from the museum. (Courtesy of Antonio Sgamellotti)

Molab, a mobile laboratory developed in Italy, provides noninvasive analytic methods for studying artworks—here a painting by Caravaggio—without removing them from the museum. (Courtesy of Antonio Sgamellotti)

Art conservators and restorers often wonder about the authenticity of the materials used in artworks, for example whether the lapis lazuli on a Madonna by Raphael or some layers on the marble of the famous David by Michelangelo are original or added later.

Earlier this year, high school students enjoying free-admission days at Rome’s National Gallery of Ancient Art learned about an innovative tool for scientific analysis—Molab, or Mobile Laboratory.

Can you imagine the insurance costs of moving such an artwork to the lab?

Coordinated by the Center SMAArt (Scientific Methodologies applied to Archeology and Art) of the University of Perugia, Italy, Molab has been traveling to museums throughout the world for the past seven years.

Molab’s equipment, which ranges from X-ray fluorescence and spectroscopy to digital optical microscopy, allows studying artworks at the place of exhibition, thus eliminating the risks associated with transport.

The mobile laboratory is also unique because it allows analyzing the work of art without removing a part it, according to Antonio Sgamellotti, professor at the Institute for Molecular Sciences and Technologies of the National Research Council (CNR) and co-founder of the Molab project.

Objects of Molab’s inquiry include works by famous artists like Giotto, Perugino, Filippo Lippi, Mantegna, and Caravaggio. “Noninvasive techniques are the only ones that can be applied,” Sgamellotti said. Molab thus operates in full compliance with the ethics of conservation.

There is also an economic advantage. “Can you imagine the insurance costs of moving such an artwork to the lab?” Sgamellotti said, referring to the studies on the invaluable “Madonna of the Yarnwinder,” by Leonardo da Vinci.

A painting doesn’t always follow the preparatory sketch. Applying infrared photography, Italian scientists found this to be the case with “The Virgin of the Rocks,” a representation of the Madonna and Christ Child with the infant John the Baptist and an angel in a rocky setting. 'Virgin of the Rocks,' Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), oil on wood, 1506, National Gallery, London. (Artrenewal.org)

A painting doesn’t always follow the preparatory sketch. Applying infrared photography, Italian scientists found this to be the case with “The Virgin of the Rocks,” a representation of the Madonna and Christ Child with the infant John the Baptist and an angel in a rocky setting. 'Virgin of the Rocks,' Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), oil on wood, 1506, National Gallery, London. (Artrenewal.org)

Sgamellotti currently concentrates his studies on pre-Spanish Mexican codices or at least the few that have survived. “In the world, only 15 remained, out of which 14 are in Europe,” he said.

Studying Artworks

When the scientific Molab meets the arts, conservators gain a deeper understanding of the artworks. “It is possible to discover the evolution of the work,” Sgamellotti said.

Reflectography, a method of photographing in infrared, reaches back to the artist’s sketch, which almost always exists.

The sketch may not coincide with the resulting artwork, as in the case of Leonardo’s “Madonna of the Rocks.” The preparatory drawing, discovered beneath the painting, showed a Madonna in adoration with a head similar to Philip’s head in “The Last Supper.”

“Not only that, Molab also allows us to check whether the materials are compatible with the historical period of the artwork,” Sgamellotti said. For example, white titanium dioxide being present clearly indicates a modern painting, as it cannot be found in a Renaissance painting.”

Restoration

The intense cooperation of scientists and conservators during Molab’s 4- to 5-day stay at a museum provides results in real time, and restorers also benefit from Molab’s data, Sgamellotti said.

In the painting “Madonna of the Goldfinch,” by Raphael, the question emerged whether the lapis lazuli was original or added during an 18th- or 19th-century restoration. “Through Molab, it was found that the pigment was of natural origin,” Sgamellotti said, adding that, as a result, it was not removed during the restoration.

Sgamellotti also mentioned the maintenance of Michelangelo’s David. Molab detected contaminants in small quantities of gypsum, wax, and oxalate, which is a product of degradation of organic substances. It was then decided “to remove the gypsum, as it could be harmful, yet to leave the wax and oxalate as a protection, thereby not altering the aesthetic appearance,” he said.

Dozens of cities and museums around the world gather works of inestimable value from past centuries. The preservation of these treasures is a burdensome task, yet with the Molab project, art lovers and scholars now have a valuable ally. “It [Molab] serves to demonstrate how science can be helpful for the conservation and knowledge of our artistic heritage,” Sgamellotti said.

For this purpose, during this year’s 14th Week of Culture, the educational program “Inside Art With Science” was presented. The Week of Culture is a collaboration between the Superintendence for the Historical, Artistic and Ethno-Anthropological Heritage; the Museums of the City of Rome; and the press office of the CNR.

The program aimed at promoting scientific tools for the preservation and restoration of cultural heritage. Young people had the chance to get a technological look at artworks and to become more aware of the preservation of their cultural heritage.

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