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See how engineer and art historian Maurizio Seracini uses his pioneering multispectral imaging techniques and other tools to uncover the long-hidden stories behind masterpiece paintings.

Episode filmed live at the 2009 World Science Festival in New York CIty.

View Additional Video Information

Speaker 1:

It’s great to be here. I come from Florence, in Italy. That’s really not only where I grew up and I had this privilege, but where I guess I got what you can call the seeds, the roots, that got me this curiosity, this desire to put together science and art, science and the past, science and cultural heritage.

Speaker 1:

My job has been defined, I guess, otherwise probably I wouldn’t be here. Cool. If cool means to be passionate about it, yes, it is cool job. But I would say I am privileged to have this, which I don’t consider a job. I don’t even consider a mission. I consider very, a lot of fun, first of all, but there is more through it. It is a privilege, because you are in contact with the mysteries of the past, with their creativity or the brightest mind of the most important artists of the past that gave us something to look at, to be inspired by.

Speaker 1:

And this is really something that every day is new, and every day is challenging those great minds, trying to understand how other, very simple materials, some colors, a little bit of a [inaudible 00:01:40], sometime some oil, a piece of work, a piece of canvas, rather than a mural, they can make a masterpiece.

Speaker 1:

Now, let’s suppose we go together to Florence and we see just one of the many masterpieces there, let’s say a Raphael, a detail about one of the many paintings by Raphael that you can find in Florentine museums. This is what you will see. This is what we will all see. But just using very simple science in this case, look how much more is there to see? You might not like this. This is not exactly so cool, so appealing, but that is really what we are looking at, but we don’t see it. Why we don’t see it? Because we don’t have their eyes to see what is called the ultra violet color fluorescence, just flashing UV light, ultraviolet light, and then filtering appropriately, then that’s how the kind of a image that you generate.

Speaker 1:

Let’s go and see another. You can call it curiosity, but it gives you an idea. This time we go to Rome, and we go and see one well-known masterpiece by Raphael, the lady with a unicorn. But this time, we focus on that small animal, the unicorn, and we want to take an x-ray of a painting. Yes, we can take an x-ray of painting. We will not see bones, but I assure you, that we’ll see a lot of very interesting, fascinating things that otherwise, again, they are there, we would like to know, but there is no way to see them. So we take the x-ray of that painting and what it comes under the unicorn, a puppy dog. That puppy dog, further studying the painting, it came out that not only Raphael did not paint the unicorn, did not paint the puppy dog, left the painting unfinished. Yet, you pick up an art history book, that is shown as a masterpiece by Raphael, the way it is, all the way down to the last detail.

Speaker 1:

So are they telling us lies? No. They’re looking at what their eyes can show, can reveal. We just need science to really see the real picture. Because when we look at our past, we look at object, artifacts. They are very old. So they are very much decayed. They have a lot of problems of deterioration, but how do you define them? How do you understand them? How do understand how to slow down that decay process? That’s where science, real hard science have to come in. Otherwise, there is no way to really help those masterpieces, and in the process, how many discoveries came out? Never seen by human eyes before, not because I have special eyes, but because I’ve used science, science that you can find used in many other fields, this time borrow, take it, modify it, and use it for these great discoveries.

Speaker 1:

Let’s see another masterpiece, the one we just recently studied. The first time was in 1981, and again, I had the privilege to study in 2006, at Uffizi, in Florence. So this is probably the first painting done by himself by Leonardo, alone, completely done by himself. That’s at least what artist orients are saying. And if we take an x-ray, it will take too long to explain to you that how many changes we can uncover, how many decay problems also are there to be noticed, studied, and followed through. But like if we were to be CSI man, look, you see that rectangle? Now we’re going to zoom in and see what it comes up. Something cool, you could say. Fingerprints, fingerprints that you do not see with your eyes. Why? Because they are under the layers of colors. So they are original fingerprints, not placed by anybody who might have handled in the last five centuries, the painting. Nope. Those are under. And I’ve studied other paintings by Leonardo, and I found other, actually many other, fingerprints. So maybe one day, we could put all those fingerprints, and do some CSI cool stories about the past. Cold cases, that’s what they call it, cold cases.

Speaker 1:

Now let’s move up to an incredibly beautiful painting. Again, by Leonardo, “The Adoration of the Magi.” We go to the Uffizi today, we look at this masterpiece, which is very big, the biggest movable painting that’s on panel that’s ever been painted by Leonardo. Was painted in 1478. It’s a crucial moment of his creativity. And this is what you see. You’ll say, “Okay, it doesn’t look to colorful, because it’s monochrome. It’s all this brownish stuff.” But, let’s suppose now you can see, you can peer through all that monochrome brown layers of colors. Well, I should say very few colors, in this case. What is there else to be seen? I should mention to you that this painting, pick up any art history book, will tell you that it’s considered a masterpiece unfinished by Leonardo. Well, science, at the end of the game, decided that was not exactly so. After six months of very sophisticated investigations, it came out that that paint was never put up by Leonardo. But you mean, that is not by Leonardo? You just said it’s the most, it’s the biggest anyone, probably among the three most important paintings by Leonardo. But the under drawing, sketched by Leonardo, that we finally can see after 500 years, there is no way to see it with the naked eyes, but that is all Leonardo.

Speaker 1:

Well, at the end of this discovery, great discovery, just imagine you are, with this work of art, you’re using science, and suddenly it’s like unveiling an incredible, beautiful, other masterpiece. This is also the biggest, most incredible collections of portraits ever discovered under a painting by not only by Leonardo, but any other artists that I’ve studied. Look yourself. And suddenly, all this becomes live, after five centuries. And it’s there for us to be appreciated. This is what Leonardo has left us. But we need the proper science to see it, because somebody else later on, painted over and made it impossible for us to uncover.

Speaker 1:

Why do we see all this? Well, there are a lot of technologies that we are using. We are using ultraviolet light. We are using, what is called, near infrared, middle infrared. We are using x-rays and many other wavelengths. Instrumentation that normally would find used in the industry, the medical field, in the military, finally is directed to unveil the secrets of our past.

Speaker 1:

And science can reveal it, but the same we can do with buildings, believe it or not. Monumental building, let’s say a building that is five, six, 10 centuries old. We want to go back in time. We want to see, really see with our eyes, how that monument look like at the very beginning, and how it was modified through time. How do we do this? Look. Suddenly we can see through plaster, and we can see that wall, as if we had stripped down everything. It’s for real, it’s not a joke. I show you. All we need is proper wavelength, in this case, a camera’s called thermal camera, which picks up heat coming from the object or could be well, it was created for Vietnam War in the ’60s. And that has been used extensively in the medical field. And then again, in the military ever since, as well as the industry. But in our case, we are picking up the little heat coming from walls, transforming that heat in an image, like a ghost thermal image projected over the surface of the plaster. You could go in any historical center and generate an incredible visual history of the evolution of that masterpiece, but also that will tell you how that was made, not only how it was transformed.

Speaker 1:

And that’s why it’s important, also from an engineering point of view, to know the materials, to see how they were used, to see the decay, so that you know how to intervene, how to restore it, but yet respecting the true meaning of conservation there is, without damaging the real original idea.

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COOL JOBS: DA VINCI DETECTIVE

See how engineer and art historian Maurizio Seracini uses his pioneering multispectral imaging techniques and other tools to uncover the long-hidden stories behind masterpiece paintings.

Episode filmed live at the 2009 World Science Festival in New York CIty.

Transcription

Speaker 1:

It’s great to be here. I come from Florence, in Italy. That’s really not only where I grew up and I had this privilege, but where I guess I got what you can call the seeds, the roots, that got me this curiosity, this desire to put together science and art, science and the past, science and cultural heritage.

Speaker 1:

My job has been defined, I guess, otherwise probably I wouldn’t be here. Cool. If cool means to be passionate about it, yes, it is cool job. But I would say I am privileged to have this, which I don’t consider a job. I don’t even consider a mission. I consider very, a lot of fun, first of all, but there is more through it. It is a privilege, because you are in contact with the mysteries of the past, with their creativity or the brightest mind of the most important artists of the past that gave us something to look at, to be inspired by.

Speaker 1:

And this is really something that every day is new, and every day is challenging those great minds, trying to understand how other, very simple materials, some colors, a little bit of a [inaudible 00:01:40], sometime some oil, a piece of work, a piece of canvas, rather than a mural, they can make a masterpiece.

Speaker 1:

Now, let’s suppose we go together to Florence and we see just one of the many masterpieces there, let’s say a Raphael, a detail about one of the many paintings by Raphael that you can find in Florentine museums. This is what you will see. This is what we will all see. But just using very simple science in this case, look how much more is there to see? You might not like this. This is not exactly so cool, so appealing, but that is really what we are looking at, but we don’t see it. Why we don’t see it? Because we don’t have their eyes to see what is called the ultra violet color fluorescence, just flashing UV light, ultraviolet light, and then filtering appropriately, then that’s how the kind of a image that you generate.

Speaker 1:

Let’s go and see another. You can call it curiosity, but it gives you an idea. This time we go to Rome, and we go and see one well-known masterpiece by Raphael, the lady with a unicorn. But this time, we focus on that small animal, the unicorn, and we want to take an x-ray of a painting. Yes, we can take an x-ray of painting. We will not see bones, but I assure you, that we’ll see a lot of very interesting, fascinating things that otherwise, again, they are there, we would like to know, but there is no way to see them. So we take the x-ray of that painting and what it comes under the unicorn, a puppy dog. That puppy dog, further studying the painting, it came out that not only Raphael did not paint the unicorn, did not paint the puppy dog, left the painting unfinished. Yet, you pick up an art history book, that is shown as a masterpiece by Raphael, the way it is, all the way down to the last detail.

Speaker 1:

So are they telling us lies? No. They’re looking at what their eyes can show, can reveal. We just need science to really see the real picture. Because when we look at our past, we look at object, artifacts. They are very old. So they are very much decayed. They have a lot of problems of deterioration, but how do you define them? How do you understand them? How do understand how to slow down that decay process? That’s where science, real hard science have to come in. Otherwise, there is no way to really help those masterpieces, and in the process, how many discoveries came out? Never seen by human eyes before, not because I have special eyes, but because I’ve used science, science that you can find used in many other fields, this time borrow, take it, modify it, and use it for these great discoveries.

Speaker 1:

Let’s see another masterpiece, the one we just recently studied. The first time was in 1981, and again, I had the privilege to study in 2006, at Uffizi, in Florence. So this is probably the first painting done by himself by Leonardo, alone, completely done by himself. That’s at least what artist orients are saying. And if we take an x-ray, it will take too long to explain to you that how many changes we can uncover, how many decay problems also are there to be noticed, studied, and followed through. But like if we were to be CSI man, look, you see that rectangle? Now we’re going to zoom in and see what it comes up. Something cool, you could say. Fingerprints, fingerprints that you do not see with your eyes. Why? Because they are under the layers of colors. So they are original fingerprints, not placed by anybody who might have handled in the last five centuries, the painting. Nope. Those are under. And I’ve studied other paintings by Leonardo, and I found other, actually many other, fingerprints. So maybe one day, we could put all those fingerprints, and do some CSI cool stories about the past. Cold cases, that’s what they call it, cold cases.

Speaker 1:

Now let’s move up to an incredibly beautiful painting. Again, by Leonardo, “The Adoration of the Magi.” We go to the Uffizi today, we look at this masterpiece, which is very big, the biggest movable painting that’s on panel that’s ever been painted by Leonardo. Was painted in 1478. It’s a crucial moment of his creativity. And this is what you see. You’ll say, “Okay, it doesn’t look to colorful, because it’s monochrome. It’s all this brownish stuff.” But, let’s suppose now you can see, you can peer through all that monochrome brown layers of colors. Well, I should say very few colors, in this case. What is there else to be seen? I should mention to you that this painting, pick up any art history book, will tell you that it’s considered a masterpiece unfinished by Leonardo. Well, science, at the end of the game, decided that was not exactly so. After six months of very sophisticated investigations, it came out that that paint was never put up by Leonardo. But you mean, that is not by Leonardo? You just said it’s the most, it’s the biggest anyone, probably among the three most important paintings by Leonardo. But the under drawing, sketched by Leonardo, that we finally can see after 500 years, there is no way to see it with the naked eyes, but that is all Leonardo.

Speaker 1:

Well, at the end of this discovery, great discovery, just imagine you are, with this work of art, you’re using science, and suddenly it’s like unveiling an incredible, beautiful, other masterpiece. This is also the biggest, most incredible collections of portraits ever discovered under a painting by not only by Leonardo, but any other artists that I’ve studied. Look yourself. And suddenly, all this becomes live, after five centuries. And it’s there for us to be appreciated. This is what Leonardo has left us. But we need the proper science to see it, because somebody else later on, painted over and made it impossible for us to uncover.

Speaker 1:

Why do we see all this? Well, there are a lot of technologies that we are using. We are using ultraviolet light. We are using, what is called, near infrared, middle infrared. We are using x-rays and many other wavelengths. Instrumentation that normally would find used in the industry, the medical field, in the military, finally is directed to unveil the secrets of our past.

Speaker 1:

And science can reveal it, but the same we can do with buildings, believe it or not. Monumental building, let’s say a building that is five, six, 10 centuries old. We want to go back in time. We want to see, really see with our eyes, how that monument look like at the very beginning, and how it was modified through time. How do we do this? Look. Suddenly we can see through plaster, and we can see that wall, as if we had stripped down everything. It’s for real, it’s not a joke. I show you. All we need is proper wavelength, in this case, a camera’s called thermal camera, which picks up heat coming from the object or could be well, it was created for Vietnam War in the ’60s. And that has been used extensively in the medical field. And then again, in the military ever since, as well as the industry. But in our case, we are picking up the little heat coming from walls, transforming that heat in an image, like a ghost thermal image projected over the surface of the plaster. You could go in any historical center and generate an incredible visual history of the evolution of that masterpiece, but also that will tell you how that was made, not only how it was transformed.

Speaker 1:

And that’s why it’s important, also from an engineering point of view, to know the materials, to see how they were used, to see the decay, so that you know how to intervene, how to restore it, but yet respecting the true meaning of conservation there is, without damaging the real original idea.