This Research in Action article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.
Not apparent in the above scene from The Life of Saint John the Baptist by Francesco Granacci (ca. 1506–1507) are the paint layers comprising it, as seen in the bottom image.
Scientists from the Department of Scientific Research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have partnered with scientists from Columbia University in New York to apply immunological analysis techniques to art conservation so that a painting's every detail, from every layer, is revealed.
The approach, developed as part of NSF's Chemistry and Materials Research in Cultural Heritage Science program, is helping conservators identify the materials used in artworks and aiding the artworks' preservation.
Egg-based tempera paint, oil-based paint, and gold—all included in Granacci's above work—are just some examples of the many organic and inorganic materials that find their way onto a canvas. Knowing the ingredients can help identify, authenticate, and perhaps most importantly, repair some of the world's most valuable and historically significant art pieces.
The MMA and Columbia investigators are using an antibody-based technique called an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay—a process common in biological research—to identify the art materials.
With their latest techniques, the researchers are breaking new ground, for the first time allowing conservators and others to detect the specific composition of each and every stroke, truly getting to the depth of the artwork.
See the Behind the Scenes article on this work, "What Lies Beneath? Understanding Art Using Science," for the full story.
NSF now supports this research under CHE-1041839. Co-principle investigators are Julie Arslanoglu from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Dr. John Loike from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Pre- and post-doctoral fellows, as well as undergraduate students, continue to contribute to the project.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Research in Action archive.