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The curious biorestoration of the Virgen del Parto by Sansovino using “hungry bacteria"

Time inevitably takes its toll on the artistic heritage of the Order of St. Augustine. This is why the Basilica of Sant'Agostino, in Campo Marzio, in collaboration with the Special Superintendence of Rome and the Intensa Sanpaolo finance group, has carried out a process of restoration that combines the most advanced and effective biotechnology with the gentlest of archaeological care.

Just a few days ago, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported on this curious procedure to preserve and clean oils, proteins, synthetic resins and mould that were damaging Jacopo Sansovino's 16th century sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child.

And what was the remedy for removing unsightly stains and restoring the Madonna's original lustre? Bacteria. Bacteria with a voracious appetite.

At a press conference, biologist Chiara Alisi, who oversaw the selection and cultivation of the bacteria, explained that these microorganisms act directly on the marble, achieving a finish that has already benefited other masterpieces by great artists like Raphael, Caravaggio and Lanfranco, among others. She added that, "We chose four bacterial strains which, after cultivation, were capable of slowing down the deterioration of the marble."

A cutting edge AND sustainable procedure

The use of this type of micro-organism in this manner - a technique which has been championed by conservators in Rome for some time now - is being increasingly seen as both "sustainable" and at the forefront of archaeological protection. Complementing traditional restoration methods, the “hungry bacteria” take away the need to use aggressive chemicals and so better care for the original materials. Moreover, the bacteria are highly transportable and the sculptures can be treated in situ in the churches without any need to move them.

It is not a quick fix, however, and restoration work remains a painstaking process. Work on cleaning the Sansovino lasted over six months and involved a team of specialists, under the leadership of director of renovation Anna Borzomati. The results can now be seen at the Basilica of Sant'Agostino, where visitors can once more enjoy this precious portrayal of the Virgin and Child Jesus.



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