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UT Students Head to Italy to Study the Chemistry of Art

Published: June 07, 2017
Jodi Hansen ’18 gets hands-on with a glass blowing demonstration at a glass factory in Murano.
Jodi Hansen ’18 gets hands-on with a glass blowing demonstration at a glass factory in Murano.
The UT travel course caps a semester of in-class lecture with an abroad experience in Venice, Florence and Rome.
The UT travel course caps a semester of in-class lecture with an abroad experience in Venice, Florence and Rome.

Staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel this summer, a group of UT students had a personal appreciation for the incredible artistry of Michelangelo. That’s because several weeks prior, they had attempted their own imitation mini-frescos and realized the challenge of painting in wet plaster.

“The trip gave me a new appreciation for art and the chemistry that goes behind it,” said Amanda Leone ’18, a marketing major from Chicago.

The course, CHE 165: Chemistry in Art, focuses on the study of materials used in creating art as well as art preservation and restoration, forgery detection and nondestructive testing. It also looks at the effect of environmental pollution on the lifespan of artworks.

“We talk about the chemistry of metals as it relates to metal sculptures in terms of degradation, whether planned or not. That patina you see on a bronze sculpture is a desirable thing typically, but that’s oxidation of the copper to the copper salts that gives it that green and blue hue. We talk about that in class,” said Michelle Leslie, assistant professor of chemistry. “They see a lot of glass in terms of mosaic tiles or Murano glass from Venice, so we talk about how the glass blowing works. The coloring agents that are in glass are metal ions, so again that’s talking about the oxidation of metals.”

Leslie had the class make soap one evening to understand an issue with aging oil paints.

“When you make soap you saponify an oil, so that’s treating an oil with a base. There are these lead salts that are in a lot of paints as part of the lead paint pigments,” explained Leslie. “What happens over time in an oil painting is that those pigments, the base portion of it can react with the oils themselves and you get these lead soaps that form within a painting. These bubbles of paint can make pock marks on the surface of the artwork. These are chemical reactions that happen within the artwork — it might not happen fast, but if we’re talking about something that’s been around since 1500 or so, these things happen.”

The UT travel course caps a semester of in-class lecture with an abroad experience in Venice, Florence and Rome.

“I thought it would be interesting to learn about how artwork is preserved and restored for thousands of years,” said Leone. “You really don't think about chemistry when you hear the word art, but after this class I can now see that chemistry plays a big role in making artwork last for many years. With the chemistry knowledge that we have today, it helps preserve these wonderful masterpieces and shows the true artistic work of people thousands of years ago.”

The course was started in 2008 by Tom Jackman, associate professor of chemistry, who was inspired by his own trip to Venice with his wife and an exhibit in the Murano Glass Museum describing the chemistry of glass making. Nearly a decade of students have had hands-on instruction in the science of art since.

“I found through questions I asked before and after each museum or historical site visited that they learned some chemistry without realizing it,” Jackman said. “The students were always able to answer my questions as we stood near the Colosseum in Rome or St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice or St. Peter’s at the Vatican.”

Leslie took over in 2011 and assistant professor Christine Theodore will take the helm in 2019 (the course won’t be offered in 2018).

“I do feel like this course gave me a better appreciation for chemistry. We were able to see chemistry used in real-life scenarios, such as through art preservation,” said political science major Marissa Milazzo ’18 of Lakewood Ranch, FL.

It’s a chemistry course intended for non-science majors though science majors can take the course and do, either to satisfy their required art aesthetic credit or for the travel component.

Kristy Hepfer ’18 is a biochemistry major who wanted a study abroad experience.

“I think that the international portion was important in order to see in person the frescos, mosaics and oil paintings that were made by artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo,” said Hepfer. “As a biochemistry major, I have taken my fair share of chemistry classes at UT, but I do believe that this course gave me a better understanding of chemistry with regards to art.”

Learn more about UT’s travel courses.