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Laser research confirms Renaissance painting

16 Feb 2007

Scientific analysis of paint from a Madonna and Child painting, based on laser Raman microscopy, supports the attribution of the work to the Renaissance period.

The first detailed report of the Raman spectroscopic studies of paint specimens from this artwork has been published this month in a paper by Howell Edwards (Chemical & Forensic Sciences, University of Bradford, UK) and Timothy Benoy (The de Brécy Trust, Holmes Chapel, UK) in a special issue of the international scientific journal, Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, devoted to art and archaeology applications.

The painting, which is known as the "de Brécy Tondo", depicts the central figures of Raphael's celebrated Sistine Madonna. Displayed in Dresden, the picture has been the subject of more than 20 years' academic research carried out in the UK and internationally.

Edwards and Benoy used laser Raman microscopic non-destructive analysis to perform the molecular characterization of pigments and their binding media. This formed a vital part of the wider-ranging analytical investigation of the painting.

Crucially, materials identified in the Raman spectroscopic study include the lead-based yellow pigment massicot, which was effectively superseded by other yellow pigments after 1700, and a vegetable-derived medium of a starch-based glue that was typical of Renaissance practice.

Scientific molecular and elemental analysis of paint specimens and their substrate from the Madonna and Child painting have been undertaken in eight independent European analytical laboratories. They support historical and stylistic conclusions that place the work in the Renaissance period – lasting between the 14th and 16th centuries.

"From these analytical findings, I am confident that the Tondo painting is consistent with an early, pre-1700, Renaissance work," said Edwards.

Benoy, honorary secretary of The de Brecy Trust, added, "The Trust is delighted to have confirmed that these latest scientific techniques give further support to its views that the Tondo is a work from the Renaissance period."

Raman spectroscopy has been used before in the non-destructive analysis of a range of painted art and artefacts including papyri, manuscripts, easel paintings, icons, polychrome statuary, wall-painting fragments, glass, ceramics, sarcophagi and frescoes.

It is particularly valuable for its ability to discriminate between organic and inorganic materials and assessment interactions between these different materials. Although it is not possible to date an artwork using molecular analysis alone, it can be a vital factor in attributing a work to a particular period from the recipe of pigments that can be identified.

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