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Bacteria hungry for works of art

Coronation of the Virgin (left) and the minerals (center, magnified 18,000 times) and Aspergillus (magnified 10,000 times) found on its surface

Ferrara Museum of Ancient Art and CASELLI, E. et al. Plos One. 2018

Some microorganisms destroy works of art while others protect them, concludes a study by microbiologist Elisabetta Caselli, from the University of Ferrara, Italy (PLOS ONE, December 5). As part her research, Caselli analyzed the Coronation of the Virgin, by Italian artist Carlo Bononi (1569–1632). The painting was completed in 1620 and removed for restoration from the Santa Maria in Vado church, located in Ferrara, after an earthquake in 2012. The researchers removed a 4-square-millimeter sample of the painting from next to a damaged area and examined the microorganisms found there using microscopy and microbial culture techniques. They then isolated strains of the bacteria Staphylococcus and Bacillus and filamentous fungi of the genera Aspergillus, Penicillium, Cladosporium, and Alternaria. One of their conclusions was that the pigments used in the seventeenth century, particularly red lac and red and yellow earths, can be sources of nutrients for microbes. However, in vitro analysis of a decontaminant compound containing spores of B. subtilis, B. pumilus, and B. megaterium proved capable of inhibiting bacteria and fungi growth on the painting. The findings could provide a new way of protecting pieces of art from biodegradation. The researchers are conducting further tests on substrates similar to the Bononi canvas to see if and how the bacteria Bacillus may damage the surface of artworks.