Meet Marta Melchiorre, a scientist who supports the conservation of paintings at the National Gallery in London

Marta Melchiorre at her desk in front of a computer at The National Gallery

Source: © The National Gallery, London

Meet Marta, an inorganic scientist who works to conserve paintings at London’s National Gallery

Marta Melchiorre focused on the sciences at school. ‘But I was very much into art history and I liked drawing a lot,’ she explains. An internship with a local art conservator opened Marta’s eyes to how her seemingly diverse passions could be combined in a fulfilling career.

She completed a degree in conservation science followed by a masters and PhD, all at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Marta then moved to the University of Udine for a postdoc. At this point, ‘I realised that I wanted to use my skills in a museum environment rather than academia’, she explains.

An international job hunt led to short-term contracts at the British Museum and then the National Gallery. A year-long stint at Historic Royal Palaces followed, before a return to the National Gallery in October 2017.

Today, Marta is one of the gallery’s resident inorganic scientists. ‘To work with paintings is my dream job,’ she says. Marta studies pinhead-sized cross-sections of paint samples using microscopes. She also increasingly uses non-invasive methods to investigate works of art.

The aim is to learn how paintings were constructed, looking at the pigments and binders used to make the paint for example, and to understand any changes that have happened over time. ‘This information helps conservators find the best way to treat a work of art and tells us whether original materials have altered, for example if pigments have discoloured,’ says Marta. ‘It also informs the best conditions, such as lighting, humidity and temperature, for future displays of the art to prevent further deterioration.’

What is your earliest memory of science?

When I was a kid, I remember being interested in why my mum has blue eyes and I don’t. Chats about Mendel’s genetics theory came quite early in my childhood.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in science?

During my PhD, I started going to conferences and joining different laboratories for short periods. I met lots of people who were really inspiring to me and motivated me to go on and pursue a career in this field. They let me see that, although this isn’t the easiest field to get into, it is possible and that the job is very rewarding.

What is your favourite analytical technique?

Hyperspectral imaging, also known as reflectance imaging spectroscopy. This non-invasive method was developed by NASA for studying the surface of planets from a distance. It started to be used on cultural heritage objects relatively recently. It can identify and map the distribution of painting materials, and reveal hidden paint passages and underdrawings.

What are you working on now?

During lockdown, I have been working on a dataset that was collected with another non-invasive technique, macro X-ray fluorescence scanning, on a painting by Ludovico Carracci. This provided clear maps of overpainted areas, which will help the conservator to continue the cleaning when she goes back to the gallery.

What is the most exciting conservation project you’ve worked on to date?

An image showing the Virgin of the rocks painting

Source: © Chesnot/Getty Images

da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks on display at The Louvre

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks. In 2005, an infrared reflectography study revealed that there is a different drawn, but never painted, composition underneath this painting. Recently, we reinvestigated the painting with our new spectral imaging techniques and identified much more of this underlying drawing.

Who is your scientific hero?

In my field, Joyce Plesters. She was the first scientist at the National Gallery to work on cross-sections from the 1950s onwards and was a pioneer in this work internationally. She worked a lot on Venetian paintings and when I was a student in Venice, Joyce was one of the first big names I came across. It’s very exciting when I find her files and samples now.

If you could go back in time and make any historical art-related scientific discovery what would it be?

To be the first person to use infrared reflectography to investigate underdrawings. It was the Dutch physicist J R J van Asperen de Boer who did this in the 1960s.

What keeps you awake at night?

At the moment, I wonder when this pandemic is going to end and when I’m going to be able to go back home to Italy to see my family. I also think about what our recent findings mean to our understanding of the relationship between the Virgin of the Rocks that we have in the National Gallery and the one in Paris at the Louvre.

What is the best part of your job?

Working in multidisciplinary teams; we work alongside conservators and curators. We all learn from each other.

What is the worst part of your job?

Troubleshooting with analytical instruments. When an instrument doesn’t work in a museum, you have to fix it yourself. It’s not like at a university, where you probably have technicians to help you.

What do you like to do outside of the lab?

I am a passionate museum and gallery-goer. I also like socialising – having chats about books with friends, exchanging recipes and going to concerts.

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