Microbes may damage paintings and protect them

– Dec. 7, 2018

It's not easy to protect old works of art. The passage of time may damage a canvas as well as a sculpture or a building. Priceless paintings can come to harm as a result of heat, cold, moisture and even microbes. Not only do these micro-organisms leave nasty traces on canvas, they could also cause long-term or lasting damage.

That's why Italian scientists studied which bacteria affect paintings, as well as which microbes may be useful to protect precious artworks. To examine these issues, biologists and art historians at the University of Ferrara looked at the seventeenth-century canvas 'Incoronazione della Vergine' by Carlo Bononi. 

They detected several species of bacteria on both the front and the back of the painting. These microbes included multiple members of the Staphylococcaceae family. The canvas was also host to a few fungi of the Penicillium genus, among others.

Interestingly enough, the various bacteria inhabited different sections of the painting. Even at just the front of the canvas, each corner had its own microbial story. Species of bacteria sometimes appeared to prefer a particular colour of paint. Under the influence of lighting and moisture, microbes created their own mini-ecosystem in individual parts of the painting.

The researchers then exposed several samples to traces of Bacillus bacteria in an attempt to halt the growth of these canvas microbes. When they did, the existing bacteria and fungi waged war on the newly introduced traces. Due to the ensuing conflict, none of the microbes were able to grow and multiply with any great success. 

Scientists have so far experimented with traces only inside the laboratory. In future, however, they are looking to apply these traces in order to protect priceless paintings.

Source: PLOS ONE