Ancient Roman Hidden Under Fresco? Maybe … Maybe Not

As can be seen by the numerous posts from the Classical blogosphere, I’m in catchup mode after a hectic week and one item which has been bugging me big time is a report about a talk given at the American Chemical Society … we’ll deal with the press release version:

In the latest achievement in efforts to see what may lie underneath the surface of great works of art, scientists today described the first use of an imaging technology like that used in airport whole-body security scanners to detect the face of an ancient Roman man hidden below the surface of a wall painting in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

They described unveiling the image, which scientists and art historians say may be thousands of years old, during the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. The meeting, with almost 12,000 presentations, continues here through Thursday.

J. Bianca Jackson, Ph.D., who reported on the project, explained that it involved a fresco, which is a mural or painting done on a wall after application of fresh plaster. In a fresco, the artist’s paint seeps into the wet plaster and sets as the plaster dries. The painting becomes part of the wall. The earliest known frescoes date to about 1500 B.C. and were found on the island of Crete in Greece.

“No previous imaging technique, including almost half a dozen commonly used to detect hidden images below paintings, forged signatures of artists and other information not visible on the surface has revealed a lost image in this fresco,” Jackson said. “This opens to door to wider use of the technology in the world of art, and we also used the method to study a Russian religious icon and the walls of a mud hut in one of humanity’s first settlements in what was ancient Turkey.”

The technology is a new addition to the palette that art conservators and scientists use to see below the surface and detect changes, including fake signatures and other alterations in a painting. Termed terahertz spectroscopy, it uses beams of electromagnetic radiation that lie between microwaves, like those used in kitchen ovens, and the infrared rays used in TV remote controls. This radiation is relatively weak, does not damage paintings and does not involve exposure to harmful radiation.

“Terahertz technology has been in use for some time, especially in quality control in the pharmaceutical industry to assure the integrity of pills and capsules, in biomedical imaging and even in homeland security with those whole-body scanners that see beneath clothing at airport security check points,” said Jackson, who is now with the University of Rochester. “But its use in examining artifacts and artworks is relatively new.”

Artists, including some of the great masters, sometimes re-used canvases, wiping out the initial image or covered old paintings with new works. They often did this in order to avoid the expense of buying a new canvas or to enhance colors and shapes in a prior composition. Frescoes likewise got a refresh, especially when the originals faded, owners tired of the image on the wall or property changed hands

The scientists turned to terahertz technology when suspicions surfaced that a hidden image might lie beneath the brushstrokes of a precious 19th century fresco, Trois homes armés de lances, in the Louvre’s Campana collection. Giampietro Campana was an Italian art collector in the 1800s whose treasures are now on display in museums around the world. When Campana acquired a work of art, he sometimes restored damaged parts or reworked the original. Art historians believe that Campana painted Trois homes armés de lances after the fresco was removed from its original wall in Italy and entered his collection.

Jackson said that Campana’s painting in itself is valuable, and the terahertz revelations may have added value by showing that an authentic Roman fresco lies under it.

To search for a hidden image, Jackson and colleagues, including Gerard Mourou, Ph.D., of Ècole Polytechnique, and Michel Menu, Ph.D., of the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, and Vincent Detalle, of the Laboratoire Recherche des Monuments Historiques, probed it with terahertz technology. The process is slow, requiring a few hours to analyze a section the size of a sheet of paper.

“We were amazed, and we were delighted,” said Jackson. “We could not believe our eyes as the image materialized on the screen. Underneath the top painting of the folds of a man’s tunic, we saw an eye, a nose and then a mouth appear. We were seeing what likely was part of an ancient Roman fresco, thousands of years old.”

Who is the man in the fresco? An imperial Roman senator? A patrician? A plebian? A great orator? A ruler who changed the course of history? Or just a wealthy, egotistical landowner who wanted to admire his image on the wall?

Jackson is leaving those questions to art historians. The team already has moved ahead and used terahertz technology to study a Russian religious icon and the walls of a mud hut in one of the earliest known human settlements in what now is the country of Turkey.

This research was funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Program project CHARISMA (grant agreement no. 228330) and in part by AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme. Access was provided by the Louvre Museum and the Institute Nationale Patrimoine.

The original report includes a photo:

via the American Chemical Society

As might be expected, this is getting a pile of press attention and blog attention as well, but near as I can tell, it’s either a really badly written article and folks are overlooking that fact, or we’re just being dealt a bunch of hooey (more likely the former). As the article states, Giampietro Campana was a collector; what it doesn’t really tell us is that some of his collection was ‘restored’ in a way which was rather sketchy, from a preservation point of view. What is missing from this article are some details which are included in a rather interesting French article by Delphine Burot at CeroArt which was written, apparently, while the testing was being done. The relevant excerpt:

L’observation des œuvres précédemment citées et de la façon dont elles ont été restaurées au musée Campana laisse penser que les restaurateurs qui travaillaient pour le marquis avaient à leur disposition un grand nombre de fragments d’enduit romain antique, qui constituait une réserve dans laquelle ils pouvaient puiser pour combler une lacune dans une peinture, ou pour en fabriquer d’autres. Car les autres peintures de la collection, reconstruites elles aussi à partir de fragments, sont à la limite de la falsification tant la part de recréation par les restaurateurs de Campana est grande. Si l’on excepte deux ou trois œuvres, comme la Primavera, sur laquelle nous reviendrons, la plupart des peintures ont été fabriquées à partir de quelques fragments peints, dont le motif a été extrapolé de façon à réaliser une composition entière, donc présentable.

Ainsi, la peinture des Trois hommes armés de lances a été reconstruite à partir de trois fragments peints montrant des visages, et de quelques autres fragments portant une inscriptionLe reste de l’œuvre est constitué par la réunion de plusieurs fragments placés de façon aléatoire sur un support de plâtre, et sur lesquels a été peinte la composition imaginée par le restaurateur : trois hommes debout côte à côte, vêtus de longs manteaux colorés et tenant des lances. Le placement de l’inscription dans la partie supérieure de l’œuvre ajoute une part de mystère à la composition. L’étude attentive des fragments a permis de voir qu’ils appartenaient presque tous à un même ensemble. Le restaurateur n’a pas pu trouver, ou n’a pas pris le temps de chercher la composition d’origine, ni les jonctions entre les fragments. Il a préféré les disposer rapidement sur un lit de plâtre et n’en garder que les parties qui l’intéressaient le plus, à savoir les visages les mieux conservés et une partie de l’inscription. D’autres lettres, lacunaires, appartenant vraisemblablement à l’inscription ont été placées dans la partie inférieure, et, grâce à un examen au Terahertz, des motifs peints (peut-être des visages) ont été repérés sous les repeints qui constituent les vêtements des trois hommes.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who scratched his head at the claim, but as can be seen from the French article, all that Campana’s restorers were actually working with was three heads; they filled in the plaster randomly and painted/restored it as seemed right to them. That explains why there’s a weird sort of sideways “Roman” head revealed by the new technology. Even then, however, whether that is a face is open to question near as I can tell … facebook friends will know that I regularly criticize claims of finding pareidolia of this or that religious figure in this or that domestic object, fruit, tortilla, or whatever and we might be dealing with a similar situation here. If it is a face, I see a beard, and if there is a beard, we’re probably not dealing with a Roman. That said, and taking into account this sort of ‘random’ filling in of things which we are told about in the Burlot article, why did the scanning only detect that one little thing? Shouldn’t there (in theory) be a pile of random lines or whatever? Does anyone know if this presented paper has been published yet?

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