X-Rays Reveal The Lost Beauty Of Ancient Roman Painting Caked In Vesuvius Ash

An iron element map (right) made with new X-ray technology reveals the underlying craftsmanship hidden beneath a damaged portrait of a Roman woman (left). Roberto Alberti, Ph.D.

A new type of high-resolution X-ray technology is helping scientists peel back the layers of time caked onto an ancient Roman painting found in Herculaneum, a town that was engulfed in volcanic ash during the epic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, alongside Pompei.

Along with revealing the hidden craftsmanship that went into this artwork, which had been undiscovered on the wall of Herculaneum's famous “House of the Mosaic Atrium” all this time, it has also picked out centuries worth of grime, dirt, salt, humidity, volcanic ash, and molten lava. For the time being, the method is showing the vibrancy and beauty of the original painting as it appeared nearly 2,000 years ago, however, the researchers believe the technique could go on to be an important tool for restoring other ancient artworks.

The cutting-edge technology was presented this week at the 254th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

"Science is allowing us to get closer to the people who lived in Herculaneum," researcher Eleonora Del Federico, said at the conference. "By unraveling the details of wall paintings that are no longer visible to the naked eye, we are in essence bringing these ancient people back to life. And learning more about the materials and techniques they used will help us to better preserve this artistry for future generations."

This portrait of the young woman has only excavated about 70 years ago. Just like many of Herculaneum and Pompeii’s frescos and statues, it began to deteriorate after it was excavated, due to its exposure to the elements.

To reveal the artwork's former-glory, the researchers used a recently developed portable macro X-ray fluorescence (macro XRF) instrument, known as ELIO by XGLab SRL. The device can detect and map out the elements that would be present in the paint, such as copper, iron, and lead.

Their analysis flagged up high levels of potassium in her cheeks, suggested that green earth pigment was used as an underpaint to help create a flesh color. It also indicated the artist used a lead-based pigment to bring out the subject’s eyes. In between the layers of crystallized grime, it also provided the researchers with a clear image of the painted lady's original shapes, tones, and pigments that have since been lost to time.

"This young woman is gone forever, but our study has revealed in remarkable detail her humanity, her thoughtful expression, and her beauty," Del Federico concluded.

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