New hydrogel unveils centuries old secret “from Michelangelo’s hand”

While successfully preserving history, art conservators have to employ forward-thinking techniques to solve age-old problems. Researchers at the University of Florence have now taken on a more modern challenge facing art conservators: adhesive tape.

The CSGI (Center for Colloid and Surface Science), is a research institute at the University that applies physical chemistry, specifically nanoscience, to conservation.

The institute has achieved considerable success when restoring a drawing on paper with tape stuck to it by creating a new hydrogel – and while tackling this issue, uncovered a secret of the painting in the process.

The researchers encountered the stretch of tape on a centuries old work on paper. It had been placed over the bottom left of the artwork and understandably the owners sought to have it removed. The artwork was a reproduction of a scene from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and dated back to the 16th Century – the time of the Renaissance artist.

After an assessment of the adhesive tape (also referred to as PSTs: pressure-sensitive tapes) present on the artwork, the researchers selected a highly water-retentive hydrogel into which nano-sized solvent droplets were dispersed. The gel formed into a solid shape and was placed over the tape to dissolve the adhesive material. Once this had been achieved, the researchers were then able to peel off the tape without any damage to the paper underneath. It was at this point that the researchers uncovered its secret.

The tape concealed the attribution, “di mano di Michelangelo” which translates as “from Michelangelo’s hand”.

This would be a remarkable discovery as the artwork dates back to Michelangelo’s era. However, the researchers believe that the attribution is likely false, hence why the tape was applied. When it was removed, the writing was unmarked and perfectly visible.

For any conservator, pressure-sensitive tapes applied to watercolours and works on paper pose a significant danger to the aesthetic and structural integrity of the fragile artwork. The misguided fixing of tape to artworks has sometimes been viewed as a temporary measure by art collectors to stabilize a painting until it can be professionally restored.

This interim solution can wreak havoc on already delicate materials. The adhesive tape residues damage the paper substrate and discolouration of the tape mitigates the enjoyment of the artwork.

Further investigation is underway at the University to ascertain the origin of the artwork. For the world of art conservation, the creation of a new hydrogel in tackling this common problem could provide a revolutionary new approach for the removal of PSTs.

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