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Tuesday, May 30 • 3:00pm - 3:30pm
(Paintings + Research & Technical Studies) A Confusion of Colors: Yellow and red pigments in the decorative scheme of the tablinum in the House of the Bicentenary at the archaeological site of Herculaneum

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The conservation of the architectural surfaces in the tablinum of the House of the Bicentenary at the ancient Roman site of Herculaneum is a collaborative project of the Getty Conservation Institute, the Herculaneum Conservation Project and the Soprintendenza Pompeii. As part of this project, a study was undertaken by a multi-disciplinary team comprised of conservators and conservation scientists to understand the effects of the catastrophic 79 CE eruption of Mt. Vesuivus on the wall paintings at Herculaneum. Due to the eruption, Herculaneum was destroyed as a living city, and yet preserved nearly intact for two millennia, buried under twenty meters of volcanic material. Discovered in 1709, and excavated as an open-air site in the early to mid-twentieth century, Herculaneum preserved a wealth of Roman cultural heritage, including the exquisitely painted walls of the tablinum of the House of the Bicentenary. The decorative scheme of the tablinum is composed of red, yellow and black monochrome backgrounds with decorative borders and floral and architectural elements. In the center of each wall are figurative scenes emulating portable paintings. As a result of the eruption, the wall paintings suffered severe damage and alteration, notably in large swaths of yellow monochrome background converted to red when exposed to the heat generated by hot mud and ash from the volcano. This color shift significantly changed the appearance of the decorative scheme. The objective of this study was to distinguish the fields of original red monochrome background from the fields of red, which had converted from yellow due to heat from the eruption. The methodology followed for the study consisted of preliminary background research, a stylistic study of similar wall painting schemes in the region, and materials analysis to identify original and altered yellows and reds in the tablinum. Based on the background research, conservators and scientists worked together to develop an approach to analyze the monochrome fields of original and altered red paint in the tablinum in order to characterize their pigment compositions and differentiate between them. Portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) was used in situ to map the monochrome backgrounds. Laboratory analysis, using optical and electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, and micro-Raman spectroscopy, was conducted on representative samples collected from areas retaining original yellow color; areas thought to be originally red; and areas thought to be originally yellow, now appearing red. These analyses suggested that the paints were not made with pure ochre pigments, but contained admixtures of secondary materials in small amounts, which appeared to be different in the yellow and red fields. This paper will present the results of the research showing that the compositions of the original and altered reds were sufficiently different to be distinguished from one another. The results of the study have contributed to a better understanding of the original decorative scheme of the room, and the implications for conservation and interpretation. Moreover, the methods developed here can be used to better understand Roman painting technology and potentially identify original and converted pigments at other sites in the Vesuvian region.

Speakers are Leslie Rainer and Kiernan Graves; co-authors are Gilberto Artioli, Arlen Heginbotham, Francesca Piqué, and Michele Secco


avatar for Leslie Rainer, [PA]

Leslie Rainer, [PA]

Wall Paintings Conservator, Senior Project Specialist, Getty Conservation Institute
Leslie Rainer is a wall paintings conservator and senior project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. She has been involved in the conservation of wall paintings on projects in the US, France, Italy, West Africa, China, Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. She is currently project... Read More →
avatar for Kiernan Graves

Kiernan Graves

Wall Painting Conservator, Getty Conservation Institute
Kiernan Graves graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art with a master's degree in the conservation of wall paintings. She spent the first part of her career in private practice working on a range of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the United States, her professional collaborations... Read More →


Gilberto Artioli

Professor of Mineralogy and Crystallography, University of Padua and Director of CIRCe, the centre for the investigation of cementitious materials, CIRCe - University of Padua
Gilberto Artioli is Full Professor of Mineralogy and Crystallography at the University of Padua and Director of the CIRCe centre for the investigation of cementitious materials. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. His interests focus on materials science applied... Read More →
avatar for Arlen Heginbotham

Arlen Heginbotham

Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, J. Paul Getty Museum
Arlen Heginbotham received his A.B. in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and his M.A. in Art Conservation from Buffalo State College. He is currently Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Arlen’s research interests include the history... Read More →
avatar for Francesca Piqué

Francesca Piqué

Professor and Wall Paintings Conservator, University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland
Francesca Piqué is a wall paintings conservator trained at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Piqué also holds an undergraduate degree in Chemistry (University of Florence) and a Master's degree in Science for Conservation (University of London). She worked from 1991 to 2004 at the... Read More →

Michele Secco

Assistant Professor at the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, University of Padua
Michele Secco is Assistant Professor at the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering of the University of Padua. He obtained his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences in 2012. His research focuses on the mineral-petrographic, chemical, microstructural and physical-mechanical... Read More →

Tuesday May 30, 2017 3:00pm - 3:30pm
Regency C-D Ballroom Level, West Tower

Attendees (134)