A physician at the Center for Molecular and Biomedical Imaging at Duke University has effectively used a laser to clean and restore fine art as well as to discover what may lie underneath a painting without damaging it.
The method was discovered by Dr. Warren S. Warren while he was attending London’s National Gallery. He was drifting through an exhibit featuring great art forgeries when he began to understand that the imaging technology currently in use in the art world is, perhaps, forty years old or more. He began to wonder if his laser work could be applied to fine art somehow.
It turns out that it can. Dr. Warren employs what is called a pump laser that allows three-dimensional representations to be created of a work. These cross sections reveal layers and colors that just might enable art researchers and restorers to discover the origins of the materials used in the works.
Duke has begun collaborations with the North Carolina Museum of Art to see how the laser technology can be of use in the art world. The first experiment conducted proved significant as Puccio Capanna’s Crucifixion was analyzed. The findings were significant and revealing. It showed that over the Madonna’s mantle there was a layer of lapis lazuli. According to the museum’s curator, that type of color blue was created with a less costly azurite which was then covered with the layer of lapis. It was noted that, during the time Capanna was painting, the lapis was more costly a product than gold. Speculation now is that it could very well be at Vatican City as part of an altarpiece.
The buzz it created has stirred the art world. The use of the lasers can be an important tool in uncovering the technology used to create the works. The laser technology can now replace the taking of a chip from a work. Under a microscope, researchers can actually see what had been underneath. There has even been interest from researchers and scholars who study the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are a number of the Scrolls that are simply too brittle to unroll. They are hopeful that the pump laser technology might allow them to actually read those Scrolls without having to risk destroying them should they ever have to decide to unroll them.
Dr. Warren sees great things for the laser technology in the art world. He commented that the technology could have been employed as long as ten years ago. No one, apparently, had thought about it until Dr. Warren wandered into London’s National Gallery.