A painting as habitat: art as food to eat and protect, by microbes
December 11, 2018 12:02 PM   Subscribe

If you could zoom in for a microscopic look at an oil painting on canvas, you would see many thin, overlapping layers of pigments—powdered bits of insects, plants, or minerals—held together with oils or glue made from animal collagens. Many of those pigments and binding materials are surprisingly edible to bacteria and fungi. Each patch of color and each layer of paint and varnish in an oil painting offers a different microbial habitat. So when you look at a painting, you’re not just looking at a work of art; you’re looking at a whole ecosystem. What’s eating this 400-year-old painting? A whole ecosystem of microbes (Kiona N. Smith for Ars Technica, on a study of the microbes on a Renaissance painting called “Incoronazione della Virgine,” by painter Carlo Bononi)

Germs of Genius—a Masterpiece’s “Microbiome” Can Spell Its Demise -- But microbes living on canvases may also help preserve irreplaceable works of art (Richard Conniff for Scientific American)
People have worried about the effects of fungi and other microorganisms on cultural objects almost as long as there have been cultural objects to worry about.

In fact, the entire science of microbiology began with a fungus damaging a cultural object. In his 1665 book Micrographia the British polymath Robert Hooke included his sketch of what looked like a flower garden on spindly stalks. It was the first known depiction of a microbe, showing the reproductive structures of a fungus from “a small spot of a hairy mould” found on the leather cover of a book.

And yet modern microbiology has played surprisingly little role in efforts to conserve some of humanity’s most precious cultural objects: the easel paintings, typically oil on canvas, that adorn the walls of great museums everywhere. A new study published [on December 5, 2018] in PLOS ONE aims to change that—and proposes using microbes themselves to prevent microbial damage.
Bacteria could protect old paintings from pigment-eating microbes (Sam Wong for New Scientist)
Pigment-eating microbes play a part in degrading priceless paintings, but other microbes may help us to save them.

Just like our bodies, oil paintings are home to a community of microorganisms, but few studies have attempted to describe them. To learn more about the microbes that live on paintings, Elisabetta Caselli of the University of Ferrara, Italy, and colleagues sampled tiny sections of Incoronazione della Virgine, a work completed in 1620 by the Italian painter Carlo Bononi. The canvas was hung on the ceiling of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Vado in Ferrara until an earthquake damaged the church in 2012.

The researchers isolated multiple strains of Staphylococcus and Bacillus bacteria that were living on the painting, as well as thread-like fungi from four genera, including Aspergillus, Penicillium, Cladosporium, and Alternaria. They also identified pigments such as red and yellow earths and red lac that could be nutrient sources for the microorganisms.
Characterization of biodegradation in a 17th century easel painting and potential for a biological approach (Elisabetta Caselli , Simonetta Pancaldi, Costanza Baldisserotto, Ferruccio Petrucci, Anna Impallaria, Lisa Volpe, Maria D’Accolti, Irene Soffritti, Maddalena Coccagna, Giovanni Sassu, Fabio Bevilacqua, Antonella Volta, Matteo Bisi, Luca Lanzoni, Sante Mazzacane) Published: December 5, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207630
posted by filthy light thief (2 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Related from a very recent New Yorker - Do Proteins Hold the Key to the Past?
posted by stevil at 3:55 PM on December 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

stevil, if I had only seen that article first, I would have stolen the title from it:
Since 2000, proteomics has attracted the attention of a small clutch of scientists who believe that it has the potential to immensely expand our knowledge of the past. Under the right conditions, proteins can survive for millions of years. In recent years, proteomic studies of art works and archeological remains have yielded biological information of startling clarity, revealing gossamer-thin layers of fish glue on seventeenth-century religious sculptures and identifying children’s milk teeth from pits of previously unrecognizable Neolithic bones. In 2008, researchers were able to sequence the proteins of a harbor seal that remained on the surface of six-hundred-year-old cooking pots found at an Inuit site in northern Alaska. Three years later, chemists found a hundred and twenty-six different proteins in a mammoth femur. With new proteomic techniques emerging constantly, the field has a heady, chaotic atmosphere of possibility. At a four-day conference called Ancient Proteins, held this summer in Copenhagen, presentations had titles such as “Biologics in Art: Whaaat???,” “Palaeoproteomic Analysis of Binding Media and Adhesives in Ancient Egypt,” and “Through the Looking Glass, and What Amino Acids Found There.”
Emphasis mine, because awesome. And science!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:06 PM on December 11, 2018

« Older Subverting Number 1 with Number 2   |   20 minute video I accidentally watched all of... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments