August 20, 2004  


Art Meets Science: SSRL to Join in Stanford Campus-Wide Project

By Davide Castelvecchi

Scientists at SSRL are joining in an unusual collaboration to study and preserve an artistic treasure from the Renaissance.

The Cantor Center exhibit runs from August 4 to November 28 and will feature this restored 15th century painting by Jacopo del Sellaio. (Image courtesy of the Cantor Center)

The focus is the recently restored painting entitled Virgin, Child and St. John, by Jacopo del Sellaio (pronounced YA-coh-poh del Sel-LAH-yo), who lived in Florence from about 1441 to 1493 and was an apprentice of the better-known artist Sandro Botticelli.

An exhibition currently at Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts showcases the project, which includes experts from Stanford’s Cantor Center and Department of Art and Art History, from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), and even from the Stanford Medical Center.

Later this year, physicist Apurva Mehta of SSRL will analyze microscopic samples of paint from Sellaio’s painting.

“What we are hoping to do is starting a wider collaboration to look at paintings from this era,” says Mehta. Together with materials scientists from the University of Texas at El Paso last year, he helped unlock the secrets of Maya blue, a pigment used in ancient Meso American murals.

“The whole point of doing this is to create a community that has a common language,” crossing the boundaries between different disciplines, he says.

The Cantor project was inspired in part by the Workshop on Synchrotron Radiation in Art and Archeology, organized at SSRL by Herman Winick in 2000. “I tried to stimulate people in different departments,” says Winick, “to tell them that they can understand (ancient artifacts) using x-rays.”

The data produced by SPEAR3’s intense, precise x-ray beams can help reveal the composition and fabrication process of the paint.

Mehta will start with x-ray fluorescence to reveal the chemical elements present in the sample—even in infinitesimal traces—and their oxidation state.

The next step will be x-ray microdiffraction, which can decode the crystalline structure of minerals the painter may have ground up to use as pigments. With the help of microdiffraction data, a geologist can trace back a mineral’s geographic origin.

Depending on the initial results, another technique that could be useful is the x-ray absorption fine structure (XAFS). “The XAFS is another way of getting information on a compound that’s not a good crystal,” such as organic materials, explains Piero Pianetta (SSRL).

The Cantor exhibition, Finding Sellaio: Conserving and Attributing a Renaissance Painting, opened August 4 and will be on view through November 28. Admission is free.

The exhibit details the study done by Stanford undergraduate Alisa Eagleston proving that the painting actually is a Sellaio. Eagleston made use of infrared images which show the painter’s drawings under the paint. Also on display is a 3D animation of a CT scan of the panel, taken by Stanford radiologist Dr. Robert Mindelzun.

Another theme of the exhibit is the recently completed, two-year restoration project of the painting, done at FAMSF.

The Web site of the exhibit is

The Web site of the 2000 workshop is

Also see the Stanford Report article at



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Last update Wednesday August 18, 2004 by Emily Ball