PhD defense: Fabiana Di Gianvincenzo

Palaeoproteomic characterisation of artistic materials in European paintings

Join the (online) Zoom PhD defense

Associate Professor Enrico Cappellini,
Evolutionary Genomics,
Globe institute,
University of Copenhagen.

Assessment committee:
Professor Matthew J. Collins (chair),
Globe Institute,
University of Copenhagen.

Research Scientist Julie Arslanoglu ,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (USA).

Lecturer Jessica Hendy,
University of York,
United Kingdom.

Expression through art is one of the distinguishing features of human beings. The oldest surviving art forms, the cave paintings, date back to tens of thousands of years ago. The importance of preserving artworks, instead, emerged much more recently, and the first applications of natural sciences to assist the conservation processes surfaced only in the 20th century. Today, state-of-theart analytical techniques are used to investigate the chemical composition of artworks and cultural heritage objects. Detailed knowledge of this composition is fundamental to ensure accurate planning of conservation and restoration treatments, as well as to define the best display and storage condition for the single artwork. In addition, understanding the materials used to produce a painting can help learn more about its history, and in the bigger picture about how it is connected to the contemporary culture and society. In this PhD thesis, protein residues extracted from European paintings were characterised using mass spectrometry-based protein sequencing. This technique can identify the single proteins present in a sample and their biological source (species and tissues), and characterise their protein damage. The capability of the method used to confidently identify proteins, even in very low amounts, is here proved by the deep characterisation of protein-based materials used to produce paintings in 14th-15th century Italy, and 19th-century Denmark. The results generally reflect the most traditional recipes used for art production in Europe, but unconventional materials were also found, highlighting the importance of applying untargeted and accurate molecular analyses to artworks. The use of these materials is possibly connected to local traditions, and thus the interpretation of these results has high relevance in the historical and cultural context to which the artwork belongs.