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Elixir of youth

Elixir of youth
By Denis Loctier
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An elixir of eternal youth may be the stuff of legend and beyond the reach of humans, but it is not such a fantasy in the world of art restoration, thanks to pioneering work being carried out in a project in the Italian city of Florence.

With age, paintings deteriorate and their structure becomes fragile. That is caused by degradation of calcium carbonate , a fundamental constituent of many works of art. Scientists at a restoration centre in Florence trying to reverse that degradation with nano-particles of calcium hydroxide.

“This painting is severely damaged because of its age, and because it was removed from the wall, with only thin colour layers left, and they’re very faded,” says Fabrizio Bandini, a restorer at Opificio. “But with this “nanocalcium” we can now consolidate the fragile parts of the painting.”

Scientists from several countries have joined forces in this European research project: a simple chemical reaction produces nano-particles of calcium hydroxide with the capacity to penetrate artworks and restore their original structure.

Piero Baglioni, a physical chemist at the University of Florence explains: “We restore the same exact composition inside the painting, the same material that was used by the artist when creating it.”

By fine tuning the size of the nano-particles, scientists control the chemical properties of the restoring solution, adapting it to the particular artifact.

Nanotechnology also helps to clean items – even sensitive watercolours. The gel gently removes the dust without damaging the painting.

“Water is confined within this gel, and by controlling the gel’s chemistry and the size of the pores in the gel we can control the depth of the water’s penetration into the painting – 100 microns, 200 microns, etc,” says Baglioni.

At the restoration workshop, the cleaning gel is used with the most fragile artifacts, including a 13th century Byzantine piece of fabric with gold embroidery.

“I think this is the future of this kind of interventions, because it’s one of the less invasive ways to treat an art object,” says textile restorer Susanna Conti.

Scientists hope that nanomaterials will offer restorers a set of unparalleled tools and methods at a negligible cost.

“With nano-science applied to art restoration we can create a new methodology to delay the death of works of art,” says Baglioni. “We can help art to live on to future generations. We can try to offer a genuine immortality for these immortal works of art, saving them for our children and for our children’s children.”

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