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Laser surgery method gets new life in art restoration

Feb. 26, 2010
Courtesy of the American Chemical Society
and World Science staff

A la­ser tech­nique used to re­move un­wanted tat­toos is find­ing a sec­ond life in pre­serv­ing great sculp­tures, paint­ings and oth­er works of art, ac­cord­ing to a re­port.

The tech­nique, called la­ser abla­t­ion, in­volves re­mov­ing ma­te­ri­al from a sol­id sur­face by va­por­iz­ing the ma­te­ri­al with a la­ser beam.

Restorers cleaned the two an­gels on the left with tra­di­tional restoration methods, and the one on the right using an ad­vanced laser tech­nique. (Credit: Sal­va­tore Sia­no)


The find­ings are dis­cussed in a pa­per on the web­site of the monthly jour­nal Ac­counts of Chem­i­cal Re­search, pub­lished by the Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal So­ci­e­ty.

Sal­va­tore Siano and Renzo Sal­im­beni of the Nello Car­ra­ra In­sti­tute of Ap­plied Phys­ics in Flor­ence, It­a­ly, note in the pa­per that la­ser clean­ing of art­works ac­tu­ally be­gan about 10 years be­fore the bet­ter known med­i­cal and in­dus­t­ri­al ap­plica­t­ions of the tech­nique.

In in­dustry, the tech­nique can re­move paints, coat­ings and oth­er ma­te­ri­al with­out dam­ag­ing the un­der­ly­ing sur­face.

“The clean­ing re­sults achieved are sur­pris­ingly good” with art­work, the auth­ors wrote, cit­ing tests con­ducted with late-medieval wall paint­ings at three loca­t­ions in Sie­na and the Ao­sta Val­ley, It­a­ly.

The sci­en­tists said la­ser abla­t­ion has already had a sig­nifi­cant im­pact in pre­serv­ing the world’s cul­tur­al her­it­age. They de­scribe the lat­est ad­vanc­es in la­ser clean­ing of stone and met­al stat­ues and wall paint­ings, in­clud­ing mas­ter­pieces like Lo­ren­zo Ghib­er­ti’s Porta del Pa­ra­di­so (Door of Par­a­dise) and Do­natel­lo’s Da­vid. They al­so dis­cuss what they called en­cour­ag­ing re­sults of la­ser clean­ing un­der­wa­ter for ma­te­ri­als that could de­ter­i­o­rate if ex­posed to air.


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A laser technique used to remove unwanted tattoos is finding a second life in preserving great sculptures, paintings and other works of art, according to a report. The technique, called laser ablation, involves removing material from a solid surface by vaporizing the material with a laser beam. The findings are discussed in a paper on the website of the monthly journal Accounts of Chemical Research, published by the American Chemical Society. Salvatore Siano and Renzo Salimbeni of the Nello Carrara Institute of Applied Physics in Florence, Italy, note in the paper that laser cleaning of artworks actually began about 10 years before the better known medical and industrial applications of the technique. In industry, the technique can remove paints, coatings and other material without damaging the underlying surface. “The cleaning results achieved are surprisingly good” for artwork, they wrote, citing tests conducted with late-medieval wall paintings at three locations in Siena and the Aosta Valley, Italy. The scientists remarked that laser ablation has had an important impact in preserving the world’s cultural heritage of great works of art. They describe the latest advances in laser cleaning of stone and metal statues and wall paintings, including masterpieces like Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Porta del Paradiso (Door of Paradise) and Donatello’s David. They also discuss what they called encouraging results of laser cleaning underwater for materials that could deteriorate if exposed to air.