Visualization of vermilion degradation using pump-probe microscopy

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Science Advances  21 Jun 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 6, eaaw3136
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw3136


Here, we demonstrate the use of pump-probe microscopy for high-resolution studies of vermilion degradation. Vermilion (mostly α-HgS), an important red pigment used in historical paintings, blackens over time, and metallic Hg and β-HgS have been implicated as possible degradation products. Conventional analysis techniques have trouble differentiating α- and β-HgS with sufficiently high spatial resolution. However, pump-probe microscopy can differentiate metallic mercury, α- and β-HgS, and map each distribution on the microscopic scale. We studied artificial degradation of α-HgS; femtosecond-pulsed laser irradiation induces an irreversible phase shift of α- to β-HgS, in which the initial presence of β-HgS grains can increase the rate of conversion in their vicinity. Continuous ultraviolet exposure instead generates both liquid Hg and β-HgS, with a conversion rate that increases with elevated temperatures. Last, we reveal the presence of β-HgS as a natural degradation product in discolored vermilion layers in a 14th century Italian painting.

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