Painting conservation and cleaning artifacts with saliva is hard-pressed humor from Harvard. The tongue in cheek award was reported in “Chemistry World” which has been given out since 1991 and is called the “Ig® Nobel Prize”, “For achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK”
The award is not for a traffic stopping discovery… its been part of the restoration processes, probably, for millennia. This year’s chemistry Ig Nobel prize has been awarded for showing that human saliva is a good cleaning agent for paintings and historical artifacts.
Paula Romão, Adília Alarcão and César Viana’s, three Portuguese conservation scientists, showed in their 1990 paper how they measured saliva’s effectiveness at removing dirt from antique gilded sculptures. It is also used for many other artifacts including paintings. They acknowledged that saliva is often used as a cleaning solvent when working with delicate materials such as gold leaf and ceramics.
“I know that it seems quite improbable, but human saliva is indeed an effective cleaning agent for surfaces like paintings, sculptures and gilded wood. But don’t try to use it on your kitchen counters,” Romão said in an acceptance video that was played at the awards ceremony at Harvard University. “The cleaning action is in part due to an enzyme in saliva, α-amylase, which breaks down starch into simple sugars.”
Painting Conservator Oriana Monemurro, in the photos, who has discovered through small sampling tests, that that the gray on the painting is most safely removed with saliva, especially in the areas of the flowers which seem to be the most sensitive to cleaning.
The ancient Roman, Plini the Elder, philosopher, art historian is reported to have declared that more works of art have been damaged by inept over-aggressive cleaning that all the floods, fires, volcanoes and earthquakes in the history of the world. He was well acquainted with disasters; he died in a pyroclastic ocean surge while trying to rescue friends from the erupting of Vesuvius in 79 ad. Saliva would have been a welcomed and acceptable safe method of cleaning to Plini.
More interesting research taking up the time of Harvard research students and perhaps their grant monies, the Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded annually to celebrate improbable scientific research across a variety of disciplines. Among this year’s winners are Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger, who were awarded the medicine prize for using roller coaster rides to hasten the passage of kidney stones, and an international team who won the biology prize for demonstrating that wine experts can smell the presence of a single fly in a glass of wine.
For interesting short painting restoration videos of stories and processes click here for the YouTube channel of Fine Art Conservation Laboratories.