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
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
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
The Web site of the
2000 workshop is
Also see the Stanford
Report article at