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Picture this: a safe way to transport priceless paintings


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Picture this: a safe way to transport priceless paintings

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At Rome’s National Gallery of Ancient Art crate up “Narcissus”, a masterpiece by Caravaggio, in preparation for a long journey. Like many fine art works, this late 16th century painting is being loaned to a temporary exhibition in another museum.

A moment’s inattention during the arduous journey could damage this invaluable work. So the art gallery teamed up with with engineers from a European research project to test a smart technology system to keep an eye on such priceless objects.

“This gallery has a very rich collection beginning from the 12th century and many of our works are very valuable – not just economically, as you can imagine, but also culturally,” said Cinzia Ammannato, the gallery’s director.

While visible damage almost never happens in transit, restorers are still concerned with microscopic-level problems that may arise especially if the art piece gets exposed to extreme ambient conditions.

Ugo Maria Colesanti, a research engineer in computer systems and and head of of Sensing Systems, explained some of the measures taken in crating up the painting: “We’re applying sensors with a special glue to the aluminium parts and after it solidifies we can correctly measure the vibrations during the journey.”

Some of the sensors are attached to the frame of the painting, others – on the crate. Comparing their measurements will show how efficiently the special container absorbs shocks.

Then the painting inside the truck must be securely protected from changes in temperature, humidity and vibration. Intelligent sensors continue the monitoring along the way.

The sensor data is constantly recorded, logging the micro-climate changes and any shocks that might occur.

The smart devices involved, developed at the University of Rome, “La Sapienza”, don’t use much energy – that gives them weeks or even months of autonomy.

They are also extremely robust, so they can be used outdoors as Chiara Petrioli, a professor of computer science at the University of Rome and Genesi project
coordinator explained: “This technology has the potential to be used in different situations at very low energy levels. Along with art works we can monitor larger objects, like tunnels or bridges, which is another application”.

After six hours on the road “Narcissus” arrives at its destination – the famous Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza, north-eastern Italy. The recording showed the transit was safe and smooth. Such data could reduce the costs of insurance, making art exchange more affordable.

“The transport of paintings, terracotta, statues and so on is a very important activity of our ministry, particularly this year as we’ve moved more than 6,000 art works,” said Elisabetta Giani, a physicist with ISCR, MiBACT involved in the research.

While experts inspected the surface of the painting for signs of damage, engineers downloaded the recording on the computer to visualise the timeline of the trip.

“Once we’ve loaded the information on the computer, we can see the curves of the temperature and humidity in transit. Here we can see a shock, for example, but inside the box it was completely dampened, which indicates that the work was correctly isolated,” said Colesanti.

Next, engineers aim to create a compatible smartphone app to keep an eye on the transported object in real time.

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