Art experts use x-rays and scientific tests to help determine the authenticity of a masterpiece painting, but soon they could well be using their noses, too…
While researching a painting called Donna Nuda – believed to be by a contemporary follower of Leonardo da Vinci rather than the artist himself, but conducted under his close supervision – experts were greeted with a unique smell of the materials used within the painting, described as ‘…the fresh smell of a forest after the rain.’
The technique used is, necessarily, non-invasive, and Martin Kemp – a leading authority on da Vinci, based at Trinity College, Oxford, has excitedly commented that this method of scented investigation, when used as a prototype to test the authenticity of other paitings, could hold enormous potential for the future of art attribution.
Gleb Zilberstein and his co-authors had previously used the technique to discover traces of morphine on the manuscript of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, as well as analysing Anthony Chekhov’s blood-stained shirt, and finding evidence of tuberculosis. The team will publish their full findings in the Journal of Proteomics, but for those of us not quite up to the technical language, a more basic explanation of the way it works is this:
Acetate film embedded with charged particles is placed on sections of the painting. The film is analysed by gas and liquid spectrometry and chromatography – run through a computer which can separate and identify every component the object is composed of, allowing researchers to pick out particular areas of interest and actually smell them, individually.
The same technology is used to analyse traces of vintage fragrances, or to capture the smell of a thunderstorm, for example, and allow a perfumer to recreate it. But this is the first time it’s been used to analyse and identify the materials of a painting. This way, the tem discovered a unique mixture of egg yolk, linseed and rosemary oil had been used by Leonardo’s Protégé, and as they were learning his exact techniques, they would have used the same paint mixtures – perhaps even mixed by the hand of da Vinci himself.
Researchers concluded that rosemary oil had been used in some sections to ‘enhance the sense of depth’ by blurring a background – just like the Portrait mode on a modern iPhone – and that they hope to use the technology to create a ‘decay curve’, so as to further help pinpoint the date of a painting by studying the smell and decomposition of organic materials.
Zilberstein commented that it was a ‘magical moment’ to smell odours that had been trapped beneath the surface of the painting for over 400 years, and explained that now, ‘for the first time the deciphering of the recipes used by Leonardo was possible…’
By Suzy Nightingale