By Erin Weeks
A group of chemists at Duke University has gained recognition in recent years for shooting lasers at medieval artwork — technology that allows a harmless peek at the many layers and materials in a painting and offers insight into long gone eras and artists. Now, Duke students will have the chance to learn from this pioneering work at the intersection of chemistry and art history in a new course on the science of color.
The course coincides with the publication of the first scientific measurements from the laser work, reported Jan. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The images we have now are enormously better than a year ago,” said Warren S. Warren, head of the lab performing the imaging and the James B. Duke professor of chemistry. He and fellow Duke authors, grad student Tana Villafana and associate research professor Martin Fischer, have not only demonstrated the technology works — they’ve shown it works at an incredible level of detail, telling the difference, for example, between nearly identical pigments.
But lasering The Crucifixion by Puccio Cappano was just the start, as the team envisions countless more cultural applications of the technology. Given enough funding and manpower, they could visualize ancient scrolls of text too fragile to unroll, reveal the bright colors that once adorned Greek statues, learn the secrets of China’s terracotta warriors, and even detect the beginnings of pigment degradation in aging artwork.
There are talented people in art conservation, Warren said, whose work could benefit from more advanced technology, and there are talented people at the cutting-edge of laser science looking for meaningful ways to apply their inventions. For the past several years, Warren’s lab has brought these people together.
Now, he hopes to accomplish something similar with students at Duke. Warren, Fischer, and another chemistry instructor, Adele DeCruz, are teaming up to teach “The Molecular, Physical, and Artistic Bases of Color” in the second half of spring semester.
The class will visit the Nasher Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and possibly even the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, to learn first-hand from art conservators and working artists. Students can expect to learn about how humans have used and made pigments over the millennia; how color works at a molecular level; and the basics of how human vision, microscopes, cameras, and lasers all see or image color.
Students can register for the half course, CHM 590, until the add/drop deadline for classes on January 22. “Students should not be scared off by the course number,” Warren said. “The prerequisite is one college-level science course, and the intent is to make both the science and artistic components accessible to a broad audience.”
Funding for the research was provided by National Science Foundation grant CHE-1309017.
CITATION: “Femtosecond pump-probe microscopy generates virtual cross-sections in historic artwork.” Tana E. Villafana, William P. Brown, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 20, 2014. Doi: 10.1071/pnas.1317230111