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University of the Basque Country team applies analytical chemistry to restoration of paintings and dating of signatures

The Farmartem Group at the University of the Basque Country’s Department of Analytical Chemistry is working on lines of research encompassing pharmaceutical drugs and the environment, and even the fine arts. This latter field involves artistic heritage tasks and the authentication of documents.

Providing solutions to any current problem is the mission of analytical chemistry, according to Ms Rosa Alonso, director of the Farmartem Research Group at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). The group’s name says it all with respect to the wide range of these problems - Farmartem: the abbreviation in Spanish of pharmaceuticals, art and the environment ( ). Art has been the line of research least worked on by the Group. Nonetheless, according to Dr. Alonso, it is gathering strength: “I believe it to have a promising future. Not a great deal has been done to date in the Basque Country with regard to document dating matters”. It is precisely document dating that is one of the prime tasks in the line of fine arts at Farmartem. There is, moreover, a project subsidised by the Basque Government: . In this, they are working with a company specialised in the legal examination and dating of possibly forged documents. “At times doubts arise over the authenticity of the signature on a contract. In those cases, legally it is highly important to know how they have been signed; if, for example, the two signatures on the same contract have been signed with the same pen and on the same date”, explained Ms Itxaso Maguregi, lecturer at the UPV/EHU’s Faculty of Fine Arts and in charge of this line of research. “For instance, the inks have solvents which disappear with time. By investigating these solvents we can know, more or less, how long the signature has been on the manuscript”. Currently we can fix the date of a signature with a margin of error of five years. “We are working on reducing this time margin”, stated Dr. Maguregi. Artistic heritage is the other important sphere of work within this line of research on fine arts. Dr. Maguregi explained that, as with the signatures on contracts, chemical analysis can also date and authenticate paintings that are several centuries old: “In the XVI-XVIII centuries above all, each painter had his or her paint palette and his or her pigments, apart from specific techniques. For example, coming across pigments invented after the XIX century in such a painting is an anachronism and means that the work is not authentic or is wrongly dated”. As regards the conservation of artistic heritage, chemical analysis acts to minimise risks when restoring a work of art. “If, for example, we wish to remove ageing varnish from a painting and not damage the underlying original, we would need a suitable solvent and to this end we need to know its chemical composition. It is essential to know the chemical nature of the materials we are dealing with”, stated Dr. Maguregi. The line of research in fine arts may be the most striking and novel of this research team, but it is just one of three being worked on by Ms Rosa Alonso’s group, the others being pharmaceutical drugs and the environment and industry. The pharmaceutical drugs research line was, precisely, the starting point for this research team. They are currently especially focused on developing chromatography-based methodologies, enabling the monitoring of patients with metabolic syndrome (high glucose or cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, etc.) and seeing what effect the various pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for these conditions have on them. According to Dr. Alonso, the technique involves “seeing, for example, if, when a treatment does not work, this is due to interactions between different medications”. As regards the environment and industry line of research, they started as a result of working with a number of enterprises in the chemical sector. One of their specialities is developing new methodologies for quality control: “With new instrumentation an awful lot can be gained in terms of time, in undertaking analyses that produce less waste, in being environmentally sustainable, and so on.” They also advise companies on developing environmentally friendly or compatible products; for example, providing alternatives to the organic solvents produced by the petroleum industry. Art, pharmaceutical drugs and the environment and industry are three very different fields but, as Dr. Alonso points out, there is one good reason why they go together at Farmartem: “With these new technologies that are making advance incredibly fast, an analytical chemistry team is able to resolve all kinds of problems”.

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