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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 13:57 EDT

Research Group Uses The Grenoble Synchrotron To Study Gothic Art

July 2, 2009

Science and technology are becoming increasingly involved in the world of art. Scientific advances and new technological instruments are opening new doors to fields of knowledge to which they had been previously closed. Art is one such case in point.

Through an agreement with the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC), the Analysis of Cultural Heritage Materials (AMPC) research group, which concentrates on the study of materials that are of historical, archeological, artistic and cultural interest, is currently examining 15th-century paintings from the end of the Gothic period to the beginning of the Renaissance.

The interdisciplinary team that forms part of this research group is made up of Salvador Butí and Nati Salvad³, from the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Trinitat Pradell, from the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering.

The objective of this experiment, which will be continued using the ALBA synchrotron, located in Cerdanyola del Valls, is to obtain scientific proof of the relationship between the various painters and schools during the transition from the Gothic movement to the Renaissance in the 15th century. This is a critical period of history for Catalonia and it is hoped that the findings will reveal the influences of and connections with art from other regions in Europe.

The research focuses on a selection of works of art from the MNAC. The pigments, agglutinating agents and primers used are being examined, as are the reaction and aging process of compounds. A specific methodology has been devised for the research that goes from the preparation of the samples, through to the selection of the most suitable chemical products and structural analysis techniques with a resolution of ten microns so that compounds may be accurately identified in a sub-millimetric range. The researchers are also considering compiling a database with all of the information obtained for use in future research work.

In order to carry out this task, the researchers use chemical analysis techniques and large pieces of scientific equipment. They also have advanced technologies available to them, as well as other techniques such as X-ray diffraction and electron microscopy. A major part of the research is performed by taking advantage of the various techniques associated with synchrotron light.

In the words of the researcher Trinitat Pradell, “a synchrotron is a particle accelerator that produces very powerful light that is able to penetrate matter, which makes it an essential tool for analyzing molecules. It is a highly powerful, penetrating beam of light that is able to examine matter that cannot be seen under a microscope. It is very useful for studying coats of paint in depth, as greater quality and intensity is achieved than ever before. The techniques and aesthetic features of works of art can be examined on a molecular level, which was unimaginable using conventional techniques”.

Given the high operational costs of a synchrotron, the only way to use one is to earn grants through calls by the EU or by the Spanish government for its research lines at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF).

Many developed countries (USA, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Switzerland, Italy and France) have this kind of facility. As of 2010, Spain will also have one, the ALBA synchrotron, which is being built in Cerdanyola del Valls.

There are only three synchrotron facilities on a par with the Grenoble ESRF, which is shared by EU countries. The other two are in the USA and Japan.

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