Uncovering the Exquisite Detail of an Ancient Painting Lost in the Mt. Vesuvius Eruption

Fagjun | Published 2017-08-24 04:11

The portrait (left) and its iron elemnt map (right). [Image by Roberto Alberti]



The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in lava during the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD. A fresco in a crumbling building in Herculaneum, however, survived the disaster. It depicts a young Roman woman peering out of the frame, and new technology may be able to let us see how the painting looked when it was freshly done.


August 24 of this year marks the 1,938th anniversary of the famous eruption in 79 AD. This eruption remains to be one of the most dangerous volcanic eruptions in history. Vesuvius ejected volcanic gases, stones, and ashes to a height of 33 kilometers. Dozens of feet of the volcanic material covered Pompeii and Herculaneum, preserving the two towns and allowing us to peer into the lives of those lost in the eruption. Chemist Eleonora Del Federico, Ph.D is now helping archaeologists restore the frescoes buried deep underneath the volcanic material.


Bringing Herculaneum Back to Life

The portrait's spot on its wall [Photo by Roberto Alberti]



A new kind of high-resolution X-ray technology is set to breathe life back into the painting of the young woman, as well as other paintings. By using this technique, there's a better chance of restoring the paintings to their former glory.


Science is allowing us to get closer to the people who lived in Herculaneum," says Del Federico. "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.”


About 20 meters of volcanic material from the Mt. Vesuvius eruption covered Herculaneum, protecting the ruins of the town against the elements and the ravages of time. When excavations on the town began in the 19th century, the ruins started deteriorating. The painting of the young woman, for example, was discovered only about 70 years ago. Del Federico theorizes that at the time of its discovery, the painting was probably quite striking. However, exposure to the elements has greatly damaged it.


Given how delicate the state of the painting was, scientists had to find a way to analyze it without doing further damage to it. Fortunately, by using ELIO by XGLab SRL, a new macro X-ray fluorescence instrument, scientists were able to analyze the painting without having to touch it.


The Legacy of the Mt. Vesuvius Eruption

ELIO scanning the portrait [Photo by Roberto Alberti]



ELIO has the ability to create a map of different elements, which is what it did with the painting. The instrument was able to show a lot of detail on the painting, including the way the artist painted the portrait as well as the kind of pigment used. According to ELIO's findings, the artist first sketched the woman with an iron-based pigment. Then, he used a lead pigment to create a highlight around her eyes. ELIO also discovered potassium in the woman's cheek, indicating that the artist must have used a green earth pigment to create a flesh color.


The findings can help conservators figure out how best to restore and preserve this painting, as well as others. The Mt. Vesuvius eruption may have wiped out all of Herculaneum, but science is now helping the town and its people rise from the ashes.

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