Biodegradation: the microorganisms that live on a 17th century painting

Biodegradation: the microorganisms that live on 17th century paintings
© Caselli et al., 2018

Researchers have taken a closer look at the microorganisms that live on a 17th century painting, to establish how they contribute to the biodegradation of old artwork.

The research, published in PLOS ONE, assessed the microorganisms living on a 17th century painting, and found that while some microorganisms contribute to the biodegradation of the art, others can protect it.

The biodegradation of art

A painting uses a wide variety of organic and inorganic materials such as canvas, oil, pigments, and varnish.

This can provide an environment suitable for colonising microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi which increases the risk of biodegradation.

The 17th century painting

The researchers used Carlo Bononi’s painting, “Incoronazione della Virgine”, which was completed in 1620, to characterise the microorganisms. They did this by removing a 4 mm2 section of the painted surface adjacent to a damaged area.

Using a combination of microscopy and microbial culture techniques, the authors identified a variety of microbes which had colonized the painting.

Which microorganisms were found?

The researchers isolated multiple strains of Staphylococcus and Bacillus bacteria as well as filamentous fungi of the Aspergillus, Penicillium, Cladosporium, and Alternaria genera.

According to the authors of the study, the red lac and red and yellow earths used in the 17th century painting may be nutrient sources for the microorganisms. They

However they also tested a decontaminating biocompound which contained spores of three Bacillus bacteria. They found that these could inhibit growth of the bacteria and fungi on the painting.

The authors concluded that a wide range of bacterial and fungal species inhabit ancient paintings, but biocompounds are a potential novel approach to prevent

The authors conclude that a wide range of bacterial and fungal species may inhabit such ancient paintings, but biocompounds potentially represent a novel approach for preserving works of art at risk of biodegradation.

Why is the study important?

The authors said: “Clarification of biodeterioration processes in artworks is important, as it could help in preventing or solving the associated damages. This study investigated such aspects in a 17th century painting, by analysing both microbial communities and chemical composition of painting, also evaluating a possible biological way to counteract these phenomena.”

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