The Art of Cultural Conservation

by Christian Millman

Call her Mud Angel 2.0. Leah Firestone ’16 wasn’t among the angeli del fango, the thousands who flocked to Florence after the devastating 1966 flood to help rescue irreplaceable paintings, sculptures, and books from the raging waters of the Arno River.

But half a century later, she’s doing her part, demonstrating to a group of museum professionals and art conservators how nanotechnology is being used to bring flaking and fading frescos back to life. “For this part, we apply rice paper to the degraded fresco surface,” she tells group members who have gathered around long tables in the Allentown Art Museum.

“Now you apply the nanoparticles,” she says, indicating that they should coat the paper covering the sample fresco square with a calcium hydroxide solution, a sort of painting-specific poultice. Because the nanoparticles in the solution are so tiny, they can penetrate the original pigment, fill in empty spaces, and slowly reform the depleted fresco to the state intended by its original creator. “Art, at some level, is chemistry,” Firestone says. “It’s a cool combination for me.” She could just as easily be referring to her fields of study—chemical engineering major with a minor in art.

How a Lafayette senior came to be qualified to help facilitate a hands-on workshop called “Nanotechnologies for Cultural Conservation: Current Trends and Practices” is an IDEAL tale.

Cutting-edge Conservators

Last summer, Firestone and six other Lafayette students worked alongside Piero Baglioni and his staff, world leaders in nanotechnology conservation, at the renowned Research Center for Colloids and Nanoscience (CSGI) at University of Florence.

The five-week immersion experience in the Renaissance City was the capstone of an intensive yearlong course developed and taught by professors Diane Cole Ahl and James Ferri, co-directors of The Center for Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, and Leadership (IDEAL). The program was designed in collaboration with Anthony Cummings, professor of music and coordinator of Italian studies. IDEAL is a unique Lafayette initiative that approaches real-world problems in multidisciplinary ways through the intersection of the liberal arts and engineering.

Students selected for the Cultural Conservation and Nanotechnology program learned a hands-on approach to art restoration using all available multidisciplinary means drawn from the arts, sciences, and engineering. Not surprisingly, many of those students’ major/minor combinations reflect such diversity: chemical engineering and economics, neuroscience and art, neuroscience and Italian studies, civil and environmental engineering, and architectural studies, to name a few.

While in Florence, the students also studied Italian art and architecture onsite with Ahl, Arthur J. ’55 and Barbara S. Rothkopf Professor of Art History, and Ferri, James T. Marcus ’50 Professor of Chemical Engineering. The IDEAL scholars became skilled in identifying the works of individual artists as they researched the different styles and materials of the art they encountered in Italy. From plaster frescos to hand-ground paint pigments, they delved deeply into the chemistry and compounds of nanomaterials used in conservation.

As it happens, this is exactly how artists’ apprentices during the Quattrocento would have trained, including such masters as Cimabue, Donatello, Fra Angelico, and Leonardo da Vinci, whose damaged works are among those that have benefited from these new techniques. Unlike the choice most contemporary students must make today between the liberal arts and sciences curricula, a properly educated Renaissance person was expected to be more broadly educated in a variety of subjects.

“It is an artificial divide,” says Ahl. “Until fairly recently in American history, students were expected to have a grounding in both art and science. The great strength of our program is that it reunites art and science as they once were and need to be again.”

Casey White ’17 knows what the reunion of art and science looks and feels like. She wants to be a dentist and is a double major in neuroscience and art. Last summer, she was studying Renaissance works of art in the very churches for which they were created, and spending three hours a day in a lab learning and practicing nanotechnology conservation, testing, and imaging techniques.

In her first and second years, White took Ahl’s Introduction to Art History and then her Italian Renaissance Art course. Both times, White was struck by how closely art and science are related. “You’re combining disconnected things,” says White. “No one looks at the art of the Renaissance, and then nanotechnology pops into their mind. To me, it’s about connecting things that are apparently unrelated.”

That carries over directly to such practices as dentistry, which is an integration of medicine with human elements, she says. “What I want to be able to say is that I participated in this program and learned new ways of thinking,” White says.

That is exactly the point, according to Ferri. “It’s always been, to me, not about training students in nanotechnology or cultural conservation, although that certainly happens,” he says. “It’s about helping students develop a mental nimbleness in speaking the different languages—sometimes literally—used by the various in-depth fields of an undergraduate education.”

Ciao, Florence. Hello, Allentown

Our IDEAL tale comes full circle back to Firestone at the Allentown Art Museum on a weekend last October. The students participated in a two-day workshop with senior scientists and faculty from CSGI. Baglioni, with whom they had studied in Florence, delivered the opening lecture.

The audience paid close attention because techniques Firestone and her peers learned in Florence are not widely known on this continent. Art conservation techniques vary from country to country and region to region, even within Italy, and different schools of practice can use widely divergent approaches. The nanotechnologies developed at CSGI are unique in the world, and most people on this side of the Atlantic have not seen them in action.

“I was at one of the tables with other professionals, and you could clearly see on their faces what happened when certain materials were used,” says Ahl. “Those were astonishing moments, both for the people participating and for me.”



In spring 2005, James Ferri was a junior faculty member in Germany on a midterm research leave. A keynote speech caught his attention. The talk was on the cutting-edge techniques applied to art conservation as related to procedures and practices developed in the wake of the 1966 Florence flood.

“I thought, ‘this is exactly what Lafayette College is about. This is liberal arts and engineering,’ ” recalls Ferri. “So after the talk, I introduced myself.”

The speaker was Piero Baglioni, director of the Research Center for Colloids and Nanoscience (CSGI) at University of Florence, recognized globally as a pioneering institution for technologies and methods for art conservation.

The two scientists hit it off immediately and a relationship between Lafayette and CSGI quickly grew, culminating in Cultural Conservation and Nanotechnology. The program is part of the course IDEAL 375, which is co-taught by Ferri and Diane Cole Ahl, whose publications on Italian Renaissance painting also encompass cultural conservation. This summer, the program continues with the immersion experience in Florence (IDEAL 376) under the direction of Anthony Cummings, professor of music and coordinator of Italian studies. Also this year, on the 50th anniversary of the flood of Florence, the program features a stateside workshop at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

To learn more about IDEAL Center initiatives, visit