Uffizi, for the first time a 16th century canvas restored with essential oils

For the first time in the world a 16th century canvas has been restored with a mix of essential oils. It happens thanks to a collaboration between Uffizi and Gemelli Polyclinic. The painting is the “Silence” by Jacopo Zucchi.

For the first time in the world, one canvas of the sixteenth century is restored with the help of essential oils of vegetable origin. That is with totally materials green, one might say. The work in question is the Silence from Jacopo Zucchi (Florence, about 1542 – Rome, about 1596), preserved in the Uffizi in the Terrazzo della Carte Geografiche, and the intervention is the result of a collaboration between the Florence museum and the Gemelli Polyclinic From Rome. The undertaking was conducted in the laboratories ofOpificio delle Pietre Dure of Florence who collaborated with the technicians of the Microbiology laboratory of the Policlinico A. Gemelli IRCCS: it is up to the microbials of the Catholic University – Fondazione Policlinico Agostino Gemelli IRCCS to develop the mix of bitter orange hydrosol and essential oil of cinnamon bark that allowed the restoration of the painting, which is part of a cycle of nine paintings that adorns the wooden ceiling of the Terrazzo, recently reopened to the public. Of the nine canvases, coming from Palazzo Firenze in Rome and transported to Florence at the behest of Ferdinand I in 1588, only ‘Il Silenzio’ was subjected to this special green technique during a phase of its restoration. And the results of this study were published in the ‘Journal of Fungi’, a prestigious international scientific journal

The idea stems from an observation: many of the chemicals used for the restorations are potentially dangerous for both works of art and human health. For this reason, studies have been underway for some years to identify alternative restoration techniques that are effective but at the same time less aggressive. From this point of view, the research focused on some essential oils and hydrolates, products of natural origin known for their strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal action, are precious.

“The Silence”Explains the microbiologist Maura Di Vito, researcher in Microbiology and Clinical Microbiology at the Catholic University, Rome campus, “showed a colonization by fungal biodeteriogens on the back of the canvas. With Dr. Debora Minotti, restorer, Dr. Daphne De Luca, restorer and contract lecturer at the University of Urbino and professor Francesca Bugli, my colleague, we have been carrying out for years research on the use of essential oils and hydrolates in restorations. Having already completed all the in vitro experimentation and verified the effectiveness of these substances on some ancient painted canvases, we asked the Uffizi Direction for the appropriate authorizations to use this ‘treatment’ on the ‘Silence’, a 1572 canvas painted by Jacopo Zucchi , protégé of Giorgio Vasari. The ‘green’ restoration proposal was positively received, so we started with a work in tandem between Rome and Florence ”.

To typify the pathogens at a diagnostic level, the Gemelli microbiologists asked the technical management of the restoration (entrusted to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure) to take samples both from the back and from the front of the canvas in a non-invasive way. Thus, the samples were collected by the doctor Debora Minotti (who graduated from the Florentine restoration institute and collaborates frequently with it), passing swabs on the colonized part and using, only on the back, the fungi-tape, a special ‘scotch’ that is delicately dabbed on the works of art to collect contaminating microorganisms. These samples were then sent to Rome, to the Microbiology Laboratory of the Agostino Gemelli IRCCS University Polyclinic Foundation directed by Professor Maurizio Sanguinetti, Professor of Microbiology at the Catholic University, Rome campus, where they were cultured and typed. “This allowed us”, explains Professor Sanguinetti, “to isolate the two fungal strains that colonized the work and to test them in vitro with our essential oils and hydrolates to verify their effectiveness. The contaminating mushrooms were sensitive to the mix of our formulation characterized by bitter orange hydrosol (Citrus aurantium var. Amara) and a very small quantity of cinnamon bark essential oil (Cinnamomun zeylanicum) “.

At this point, everything was ready for surgery. To treat the important patient, a special “chamber” was prepared, in which to house the painting during the treatment. After having sprayed the mix on the back of the canvas and placing a sheet of absorbent paper soaked in the same mix on it, the painting was housed inside the “chamber”, a sort of large envelope of Melinex (a monosiliconated polyester film used in some restoration phases). The cloth thus prepared was placed on a heating and suction table for the first few hours; then it was left all night in the closed environment of the “room” with the table turned off. The heating served to allow the fungi to enter the replication phase, which represents their Achilles heel, and to allow the treatment to work better by neutralizing the biodeteriogens. The next day everything was removed and the canvas was dried.

Dr. Di Vito was in continuous visual and audio contact (via Whatsapp) for 24 hours with Dr. Minotti, communicating the delicate points of the new microbiological treatment and identifying with them the best application method. At the end of the restoration the swabs were then repeated to send them to Rome, repeat the cultures and check if the mushrooms were still present. No fungal growth appeared from the cultures. “An interesting team work was thus concluded”, adds Professor Sanguinetti. “The ‘green mission’ was successful and Silence was then returned to the ceiling of the Hall of Geographical Maps. It was a pioneering approach in the field of restoration of ancient works with the use of essential oils and hydrolates. This study can pave the way for future new applications on the many works of art heritage of humanity that are simultaneously effective on the work and safe for the operator “.

“The Uffizi Galleries”, concludes the museum director Eike Schmidt“They are proud to work on the most avant-garde fronts of scientific research”.

Image: Jacopo Zucchi, Silence (1572; oil on canvas, 135 x 151 cm; Florence, Uffizi Galleries, Terrazzo delle Carte Geografiche). Before and after the restoration

Uffizi, for the first time a 16th century canvas restored with essential oils
Uffizi, for the first time a 16th century canvas restored with essential oils

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