High-tech exploration reveals mysteries of art history


UCSD ‘sleuth’ solves preservation puzzles

Surrounded by centuries-old paintings, art diagnostician Maurizio Seracini goes to work in the cool vault of the San Diego Museum of Art. “That’s our patient,” Seracini said, pointing to a small 1468 painting by Italian Carlo Crivelli.

In a white lab coat, Seracini, who directs the Center for Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archeology at UCSD, looks every part the doctor as he assesses the health of the 540-year-old masterpiece.

But instead of a stethoscope, the biological and electronic engineer who graduated from UCSD uses multi-spectral imaging, high-resolution photographs taken at different light wavelengths, which allow him to see much more than what meets the eye.

Not what you see

Ultraviolet and infrared light penetrates the surface pigments to reveal what lies beneath, such as an ink or charcoal sketch the artist made before putting brush to canvas.

“What you see is not always what you get,” said Seracini. “Science provides more in-depth understanding of a work of art.”

Mounted on a mechanical arm controlled by a computer, the digital camera captures hundreds of images at precise increments. Seracini also uses microscopes and X-ray to enlarge and expose other details.

The massive amounts of data are compiled into an integrated computerized mosaic of the painting, what Seracini calls a digital clinical chart.

This chart provides a comprehensive assessment of the painting, from how it was created to its current condition. It tells art historians and preservationists what has happened to it over the years, such as any changes, damages or repairs.

Pioneering work

While such in-depth analysis of great masterworks is nothing new, Seracini is pioneering the clinical chart methodology.

Currently, most preservation work is subjective and piecemeal, Seracini said. Pieces are analyzed when selected for preservation, not the other way around. Seracini likens this to going into surgery without diagnosing the problem. He said he is hoping museums will adopt a more objective process of analyzing their entire collections to better guide conservation efforts.

Seracini has advocated such practices as “necessary and indispensable” for decades, but ran into great resistance in the art world - until he teamed up with the San Diego Museum of Art last year.

Applied at home

Director Derrick Cartwright enthusiastically welcomed him to develop prototype tools analyzing a handful of their prized Italian masterworks, including Giorgione, Fra Angelico and Cosme Tura.

“We are going to learn so much about paintings that have been here for decades that we never knew before,” Cartwright said.

A few mysteries may be solved. The Giorgione portrait was painted sometime in 1500, but the last two numbers of the date are illegible. Blown-up photographs may help bring those numbers into focus.

Light penetrates different types of paint at varying wavelengths, which can help non-invasively identify the pigment’s components. Knowing this could tell art historians if the Crivelli was painted in Venice or the Marches, based on the materials available in different regions.

“Such bits of information seem insignificant,” said John Marciari, the museum’s curator of Spanish and Italian paintings, “but over time can be the basis for a whole new body of knowledge of Renaissance art and how it was made.”

Building audiences

The nitty-gritty details are not just exciting for the scholarly historians. Applying the technology younger generations use in their everyday lives to art can create a more engaging museum experience.

“With old master works of art, it’s not easy to know what to look for,” Marciari said. “Technology can help a new audience, who didn’t grow up learning about Renaissance art, see things that are really interesting in these pictures.”

Seracini’s work is supported by the Center for Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archeology.

A 1973 graduate of UCSD in bioengineering, the Italian is renowned for his 30-plus-year hunt for Leonardo de Vinci’s “Battle of Anghiari.”

He splits his time between San Diego and Florence, where he continues his high-tech search for the fresco, which he believes is hidden in its original location, behind a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio.

In his career, Seracini has analyzed thousands of paintings - “I stopped counting after 2,600” - but each new patient with its unique discoveries to unearth excites him.

“Every single time you are trying to connect with that artist, capture the secrets of his creativity,” Seracini said. “It’s very challenging, especially, after centuries and centuries.”