Researchers reveal the stunning artistry behind a surviving ancient Roman painting

ancient-roman-painting-herculaneum_1Credit: Roberto Alberti

When it comes to artworks, very few of them can boast their perseverance through molten lava, volcanic ash, decades of humidity and modern-day pollution. The above pictured ancient Roman painting proudly belongs to this exclusive club. And now scientists are assessing the art with the aid of a new type of high-resolution X-ray technology, which in turn has revealed the astounding artistry of the painting based on its elements of composition and color. The recognition of these elements in their authentic scope will help conservators to accurately recreate and restore the image, along with other similar works.

The ancient Roman painting in question here was originally recovered about 70 years ago, from the town of Herculaneum that was destroyed along with Pompeii by the calamitous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. And much like Pompeii, in an ironic turn of events, its ruins were better preserved by almost 66 ft of volcanic material. Essentially many of Herculaneum’s frescoes, artworks, and sculptures deteriorated at a faster degree after they were salvaged during 19th-century excavations – with humidity and harmful atmospheric agents being the main culprits.


Credit: Roberto Alberti

Suffice it to say, this ancient Roman painting suffered significant damage after just decades being exposed to outside elements. Consequently, researchers involved with the Herculaneum Conservation Project opted for a state-of-the-art technology that is non-invasive yet effective for analyzing the artwork, in the form of a portable macro X-ray fluorescence (macro XRF) instrument. Developed by the scientists at XGLab SRL, the device known as ELIO, has the capacity to assess the painting without coming in actual contact with the historical material.

The subsequent non-invasive analysis allowed the conservators to map elements contained within the artwork, like iron, lead, and copper. For example,  the researchers were genuinely surprised by the hidden details of the ancient painting, with the main sketching of the woman being done in an iron-based pigment. Her eyes were highlighted with a lead-based pigment, while her complimentary cheeks alluded to the use of a green earth pigment that organically mimicked the ‘flesh’ tint.


Credit: Roberto Alberti

And the good news is, these previously unknown insights will help conservators to choose their compatible cleaning solvents that in turn can partially restore the quality of the ancient Roman painting. As Eleonora Del Federico, Ph.D., who works with the Herculaneum Conservation Project, said –

Science is allowing us to get closer to the people who lived in Herculaneum. By unraveling the details of wall paintings that are no longer visible to the naked eye, we are in essence bringing these ancient people back to life. And learning more about the materials and techniques they used will help us to better preserve this artistry for future generations.


Street through the ruins of Herculaneum. Credit: Spacial Anomaly

Source: American Chemical Society (Press Release)

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