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Science Wednesday: OnAir – Cracking The Da Vinci Color Code

2009 December 30

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Constaninos Sioutas, Ph.D. typically conducts air pollution research on polluted highway roadsides or near running diesel engines. But a recent project lured him to a much more refined location— face to face with Leonardo da Vinci’s, The Last Supper.

Sioutas is a co-director of the Southern California Particle Center, a consortium of universities researching air pollution. The Center is funded by a multimillion-dollar EPA grant. Sioutas’ current research focuses on exposure to mobile air pollution sources and their potential toxicity, begging the question—what in the world does he have to do with da Vinci?

I got the chance to ask him in person when I traveled to his laboratory in October. As it turns out, over years of conducting air pollution research through EPA grants, Sioutas developed several new scientific instruments for capturing air particles and measuring their properties. One of these instruments, a Personal Cascade Impactor Sampler separates airborne particles by size and allows for analysis of the particles’ toxic content.

After developing this new technology, Sioutas started to think outside the box. What if this instrument could be used to understand how exposure to air and particle settling would affect the color longevity of a painting such as, say, The Last Supper?

image of DaVinci\'s Last Supper and Sioutas

Sioutas traveled to Milan to present a research proposal to The Last Supper’s curator, Dr. Alberto Artioli, asking just that question. He proposed to use his Impactor to take a series of measurements both inside and outside the legendary Refettorio, where the mural is on display.

Dr. Artioli was “positively impressed” and accepted Sioutas’ proposal. One goal of the project will be to determine the sources of particles settling on the painting, down to such diminutive possibilities as erosion from visitors’ shoes and clothing fibers, in addition to outdoor sources like traffic exhaust.

“It is really an amazing experience,” Sioutas said, beaming, “getting to apply these instruments for such a different task.” According to the project proposal, the study will draw conclusions about “the degradation risks to the Leonardo da Vinci’s painting.”

Read more about the EPA-funded research for developing the Personal Cascade Impactor Sampler at

About the Author: Becky Fried is a student contractor with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, part of the Office of Research and Development. Her “OnAir” Science Wednesday posts chronicle EPA-funded research on clean air.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    December 30, 2009

    Like the Borobudur temple, here, maybe a next challenge for dik Sioutas experimental. The construction of Borobudur more than complicated than it’s. I hope you should be come to here. Bravo Constaninos Sioutas and also Becky Fried ……!!!!!

  2. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    December 31, 2009

    California has some of the best research institutions and researchers in the world. We are very lucky. Air pollution is a very important concern here. We live in one of the worst air quality regions in the country and more is coming out all the time about how bad the impacts really are. 60% to 80% of the cancer causing chemicals that make up air pollution come from diesel emissions. But the same chemicals are also more likely to cause pregnant women to miscarry if they live near a freeway or major road, and a study coming out next month will point to a link between the exposure to air pollution near a major road and serious cardiovascular problems. We need to work on ways to eliminate diesel and go to all electric power or hydrogen powered vehicles. The power to recharge electric batteries could come from solar power and the power to manufacture hydrogen could come from solar power too. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  3. mike permalink
    June 23, 2010

    What an interesting application of air pollution research in art. As a scientist/ researcher we should always think outside of box to get or obtain new thing that outside our capabilities before. Very good implementation. Hope that one day we could find a new solution to make sure any painting will not affected and keep in their original quality forever.Thus, make lot of money for that scientist then=)


  4. July 4, 2012

    Enhancing up in his dad’s Vinci house, Leonardo had use of scholarly text managed by household. He was also revealed to Vinci’s conventional art perform personalized, and when he was about 15 his dad apprenticed him to the well-known way of Andrea Del Verrocchio in Florence. Even as a starting, Leonardo confirmed his significant ability. Indeed, his professional seems to have seeped into a variety of items developed by the Verrocchio’s classification from the interval 1470 to 1475.

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