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Behind the Scenes at The Met, the Scientists of Beauty Are Three Italians

Marco Leona, Federica Pozzi, Elena Basso: they are the ones that apply the (necessary) scientific lens to the works of The Met and of many other museums in New York

Dr. Marco Leona (center) between his staff, Dr. Elena Basso (left) and Dr. Federica Pozzi (right) in one of their laboratories at The Met.

"Don’t call us the brain drain". Marco Leona is the founder of the Science Department of The Metropolitan Museum, and together with his Italian colleagues, Federica Pozzi and Elena Basso, he is proud to provide a scientific understanding to the works of art of The Met and many of the museums in the Big Apple. Experts trained in Italy, but resolute in defining America as the "land of opportunity"

The façade of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Not everyone knows that underneath The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, one of the most famous and prestigious museums in the world, there is another Metropolitan. A museum inside a museum, where you gain access descending (instead of climbing) the majestic main staircase, the one that receives visitors and accompanies them in an authentic art immersion of all times and all places. And it is descending those stairs – accessible only to authorized staff – that you are introduced to a “behind the scenes” of The Met, made of long, white hallways lit by neon lights, where signs hang on the walls that invite one to “give priority to the art”. An invitation that might seem almost like a philosophical quirk to a distracted observer, but which in reality is literal in meaning: in fact, works of art considered almost priceless pass through those aisles, and the street rules of the deep twists and turns of The Met – rightfully so – stipulate that priority is always, in any case, the “works of art” and of those that are transporting them.

Traveling through those aisles that have nothing in common with the magnificence of the museum, we were given access to the science labs of The Met on one very cold January afternoon — a place that you would never expect to find in this art abode par excellence. Instead, not only does it exist, but just like every respectable science lab, it houses avant-garde equipment, powerful microscopes, technology of every kind, and many scientists – 14 permanent staff members with cyclic raids of interns and fellows – that work every day to discover and examine in-depth the material truths of the art objects, for the purpose of research and preservation.

An Italian from Ivrea, Marco Leona, is in charge of these art scientists and is the one who personally founded this very prestigious science department – among the most advanced in the United States in the field of research on cultural heritage. He, along with two of his associates, Federica Pozzi and Elena Basso, welcomes us in. They, too, as one can guess from their names, are Italian: one from Lombardy, in the province of Monza, and the other from Piemonte, in San Germano Vercellese. And to make the atmosphere still more patriotic, he offers us an espresso, from a rigorously Italian coffee maker. This is how he introduces us to a world that very few people know of, and in which this journalist accidentally fell into only thanks to her sister, Federica’s, talent (the same Federica as the one mentioned above). Eight years ago, after completing a university degree and a doctorate in Chemistry at the University of Milan, she packed her bags and said goodbye to the small town in Brianza that is her birthplace in order to fulfill her dream – an American dream.

From left, Elena Basso, Marco Leona and Federica Pozzi in the electron microscope laboratory.

Dr. Leona explains to us that he arrived in the “land of opportunity” in a roundabout manner, following a university degree conferred in Chemistry and a doctorate in Mineralogy and Crystallography at the University of Pavia. “We have a discreet number of Italians that are involved in science and scientific research within the field of cultural heritage. I was one of the first ones to arrive when this field was not as developed as now”. Everything began with a post-doctorate at the University of Michigan, which introduced him to a field that was still in the pioneering stages, but without a doubt, fascinating. “At university, in Italy, there were professors that were involved with restoring the Sistine Chapel”, he remembers, pointing to a poster hung on the wall behind him. And he explains, “It’s a reminder of that time, of a conference held by Professor Giacomo Chiari, when I was a student in Pavia, that for me was a revelation”. From there, the search for constantly new and stimulating experiences: “While visiting the Detroit Institute of Art – one of the most extraordinary American museums which however lacks the philanthropic support that we have here in New York – I discovered that this was a very vibrant field in America: the museums had their own laboratories, they’re own scientists, to study works of art”. Then came the “epiphany”: that was the field that he wanted to work in. “I literally called every laboratory. The last one on the list, the one at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), informed me that there was a fellowship available, that they paid very little. A year later, I moved there”.

The Metropolitan Museum, on Fifth Avenue.

After various relocations within the United States, he arrives at The Met, the one that – as our Director prompts with a soccer quip, in perfect Italian style – is a bit like the “Juventus of museums”, the team that always wins and for which everyone wants to play. Leona willingly picks up on the provocation: “Don’t talk to me about Juventus: unfortunately, I root for the ‘the other team’ (Torino F.C.), even though my children play in the Juventus Academy New York”, he says ironically. And he continues, kiddingly: “A friend of mine once said to me, ‘New York is the only city in the world where you can raise an Italian child, hoping he will not become a fan of Juventus’”.

In the US, museums are leaders in terms of research on cultural heritage and restoration, they have curators on their staff and the more important ones have science labs. But in Italy there are very strong cultural heritage research groups, and the US also benefits from this.

Joking aside, for him, finding America has meant discovering “the chemistry for the restoration and the study of works of art practiced within museums”. Because it is exactly here that the main difference with Italy is nestled, the birthplace of art par excellence, but within which science labs are not found. In the Bel paese, which boasts large and very important schools of restoration, the organization for cultural heritage is such that museums lean on the universities, on external personnel or contractors, or on restorers of the Central Institute of Restoration – ICR in Rome and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure  (OPD) in Florence (literally meaning Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones). Instead, in the United States, museums do not need to subcontract out scientific research or conservation: “They are leaders in research on cultural heritage and restoration. The large museums have restorers on staff, and the more important ones, about a dozen, have science labs”, he explains.

There is only one case in Italy, Dr. Basso reminds us (also a graduate of the University of Pavia, with a degree in Geological Sciences and a Ph.D. in Earth Science), in which a museum has a lab and restorers on site that also work much more directly than the U.S. within academic circles: the Violin Museum (MdV) in Cremona. Of course, you also have the Vatican Museums, that nevertheless are under the jurisdiction of Vatican City. “But what we do have in Italy”, adds Leona, “are very strong cultural heritage research groups”. And not only. In Italy, “we have excellent candidates that compete to obtain important positions in the United States”. Education, therefore, remains a strong point of the Belpaese and “the United States can absorb that which Italy cannot absorb”.    

Visitors at The Met.

In fact, the presence of Italian scientists in this field in the United States is not by any means an exception. In the same science department of The Met, we find two other Italian scientists — Francesca Casadio, currently the director of scientific research at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Professor Giacomo Chiari, long-time head of the science department at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Leona explains, “Italy is rich with young adults” – young adults who have trained in Italy, who are full of talent and are well prepared. “I obviously attempt to not have a preference based on nationality when I have to hire someone”, he states ironically. And then he comments, seriously, again: “Nonetheless, we have a great number of Italians who apply to the positions we offer and are generally amongst the most qualified candidates. A significant amount of talent is certainly available”.

Italian universities train scientists that are esteemed the world over: it is a sign of merit, from which Italy gains a remarkable intellectual bonus.

Talent in which Italy invests in terms of training, but then does not take advantage of. The result, we wish to emphasize, is an enormous loss of human capital.  Leona, who together with his two young staff members, does not like the journalistic label of “brain drain”, and prefers to see its positive side: “In a certain sense, it can be a situation in which everyone benefits. Our Italian colleagues that send us students have in front of the two paths: they can complain that these students then find work with us, or they can be happy that they gave them the opportunity to be introduced into a field of employment in which they will flourish and will be successful. The Italian universities train scientists that are esteemed throughout the world: this is a sign of merit”. Merit, we rebuttal, from which Italy does not gain anything. “Certainly”, he concedes. But he adds, resorting again to a soccer metaphor, “If I see that Torino, the team that I support, doesn’t have money to pay the soccer players and they change teams, I can only accept such a decision”. And then he clarifies, “The return, in my opinion, is a remarkable intellectual bonus. Today’s world is always more interconnected – even the world of academe. And the abundance of networking with the universities and with the employment world in our country is certainly significant”.

Federica Pozzi illustrates some chemical analysis techniques to our director,
Stefano Vaccara.

One thing is certain: encountering Italians of a certain intellect in one of the largest museums in the world is a source of pride for us, their fellow compatriots, and for all of Italy. Italians that could be defined as scientists of beauty, necessary mediators between the tangible substance of a work of art, always requiring care and in-depth analysis, and its transcendental significance, so to speak. “That which is always important for me is to find the crossroads between beauty; its significance and the artist’s aspirations, and the applied methods”, explains Leona. What moves me most of all is verifying how artists, artisans and scientists (because that is what artists were in ancient times) knew how to search within the nature surrounding them new materials and new means of expressing beauty. And he adds, “That which we handle every day is a beauty that becomes physical, material”.

If we had feared failure, we would not have created all of this. We basically threw ourselves into this without having any fear of facing difficulty, and this is very much Italian.

But what is the actual mission of these scientists of beauty? Leona exemplifies it to us by talking about a project launched about a year ago, the Network Initiative for Conservation Science (NICS). This is a project that “arose from the awareness that we of The Metropolitan Museum have the logistical capacity to do many things; we have the most advanced lab in the United States and a very important academic body of scientists. We can, therefore, respond to any question posed to us”. From here, the idea of making equipment, staff, and expertise available also to those museums in New York that do not have a science lab to analyze their own works of art for the purpose of research or conservation. An initiative for which Federica Pozzi is in charge, and for which Elena Basso also works, and which is financed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “I believe that there is an aspect of this project that is very Italian; if we had had a fear of failure, we would not have built all of this. We practically threw ourselves in without fearing the logistical difficulties, and this is very Italian”, reflects Leona.

Federica Pozzi and Elena Basso working on some microscopic samples taken from
van Gogh paintings preserved at the Guggenheim.

Boldness, imagination, and a great will to work were, therefore, the qualities necessary to realize that which little more than 12 months ago was still only a dream. 21 projects of various scope, 94 works of art analyzed, and all the requests coming from other satisfied museums and institutions in just one year of work – it is an excellent premise. And among the projects that Leona’s staff is most proud of, the first to be cited is that of Carmen Herrera, the Cuban-America artist still living at the age of 102; a project borne from an exhibition organized in Fall 2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “The curators of the exhibition noticed that the artist classified all of the pictorial materials used by her as acrylic. This created astonishment because the acrylic paint was introduced into the European market beginning in 1963, and Herrera maintained to have used acrylic paints on an entire body of works from the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s — precisely the Parisian period of the artist”, explains Dr. Pozzi. “We put ourselves in contact with the curators, we selected 5 paintings dating between 1948 and 1953 and we proceeded to conduct our analyses”. What was the outcome? The scientists at The Met contributed to rewriting the history of the material because the studies confirmed that, at least starting in 1949, Carmen Herrera was effectively using acrylics for her highly venerated works.

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949. Acrylic on canvas, diameter 101.6 cm / 40 in. By courtesy of the artist and the Lisson Gallery © Carmen Herrera.

But the tales of art that the walls of the major American science labs (not just The Met) could tell are really many.  The head of NICS remembers, for instance, when while working at the Art Institute of Chicago, he contributed to casting new light on the original aspect of some works of the grand collection of Impressionists of that museum, verifying how the varnish that artists of the caliber of Monet or Renoir used tended to fade with time if exposed to light; the current version, therefore, is very different from the way it would have appeared two centuries ago. “I remember the case of a Renoir painting, Madame Léon Clapisson, in which we analyzed a faded varnish that we discovered to be comprised of cochineal, a natural colorant also used as a food coloring. We digitally reproduced how the painting should have originally appeared, based on our scientific analysis and on the visual inspection of the curators. From here came about an exhibition, the first at the Art Institute, focused on the results of the scientific analyses”.

Every day, art objects of great historical and cultural value pass through the hands of The Met’s science staff. Among these, also a series of totems from the 1800s preserved at the American Museum of Natural History that have lost their original polychromes due to some incidents to which they fell victim, among which gallery fires, but also to little prudent restoration work. Or the sculptures in metal alloy displayed in Central Park that Dr. Basso is involved in analyzing, in view of the restoration work for the Central Park Conservancy. Or still, yet, some paintings by Van Gogh preserved at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on which the majority of the research has to do with the faded varnishes and the pictorial techniques used by the artist.

Federica Pozzi, together with colleagues from The Met and the Guggenheim, carries out an
X-ray fluorescence scan of a van Gogh preserved at the Guggenheim.

Photograph at the optical microscope of a pictorial stratigraphy collected from a van Gogh painting belonging to the Guggenheim collection.

America and its museums have been for me that which one expects – a “land of opportunity”. Working here is an enormous privilege.

While Leona and the researchers proudly list the projects of which they were recently involved with, we are amazed to think that the scientists of beauty like them can’t ask for anything more from their line of work. But if they had “Aladdin’s lamp”, what would they ask for to do even better? “I’m their boss, so I have to be careful in answering this question”, Leona jests, referring to the two scientists. But then he quickly goes back to being serious. “Honestly, America and its museums have been for me that which one expects — a land of opportunity. Obviously”, he continues, “we are scientists that work in a museum. In a university or in an industrial environment there are funds, resources — we are always supported. Here, every day is a battle to conduct a research project. Therefore”, he adds, “we hope that the scientific aspect becomes important as much as merely the artistic-cultural one”. But then he specifies, “We must also consider that we are a museum, therefore it is normal that priority is given to the art, for which we cover a support role. The fact remains that working here, for me, is an enormous privilege”. His staff agrees with him, and almost in chorus, confess to us that they have realized “the dream of a lifetime”. A dream that – it is evident – in their country of origin that also generously provided them the tools to develop their own talent, would not have been able to actualize. Therefore, on the basis of such experience, what would they advise to Italy, which remains the world’s richest and largest open-air museum? Leona identifies a positive trend not only in the recent choice of opening the positions of museum directors to international candidates – a choice very much debated and contested by the same Constitutional Court of Italy – but above all in the latest initiative, encouraging philanthropic efforts towards its cultural heritage, based on the American model: “One enormous change is that of the art bonus; for the first time in the history of the Italian tax code it will be possible to write off donations made to a specific restoration project from taxable income. With regard to talent, he reaffirms, “in Italy, there is so much”.

Italy is a magnificent country, even in terms of quality of life. Anyone would want to be in the condition to be able to go back there

Federica Pozzi and Elena Basso analyze a sculpture in bronze from the Frick Collection with an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.


And if these three distinguished compatriots show a bit of annoyance in being labeled with great carelessness as part of the “brain drain”, when we ask them if they’d return to their homeland in the case that they would find themselves in the condition of being pioneers of scientific research in their own country’s museums, they smile, as if they’ve heard this question a thousand times. The first to respond is Dr. Basso: “As Italians, often the tendency is to restrain from the obstacles, more so than seize the opportunities. Undoubtedly, it would be the occasion to seize it — to be pioneers in Italy, in this sense, would certainly be gratifying”. Even Leona comes across positive: “Italy is a magnificent country in which one can live very well, in terms of quality of life”, he ascertains. And he continues, “If an interesting professional opportunity were to present itself on equal terms or even under conditions that are a bit more difficult, I believe that any Italian — but even any American — would accept it”. But it is precisely on that “if” that Dr. Pozzi juts out with a pinch of skepticism: “I think back to things that have recently happened to me. I often receive emails from Italy in which they offer me contracts for a maximum of 6 months”. Proposals, in other words, that don’t seem to guarantee any prospects even remotely commensurate to those offered her until now in the United States. And it is in that “if” that she has ultimately nestled into the most well-known – but not for this the least painful – the drama of a country that trains professionals destined to be respected and appreciated all over the world, the least of which in their own country. And yet, that which our compatriots make us reflect upon is that there is much more beyond the rhetoric of the “brain drain”. A rhetoric often so inflated that it becomes a mainstream trivialization of a complex problem that does exist and that we often limit ourselves to pigeonhole and accept – almost anesthetize – instead of committing to motivating the collective conscience to resolve it. It is not only the “brains” that are leaving; they are people of talent with a past, with baggage, with bonds, with relationships, with nostalgia and dreams. And who knows if it is justified to talk about “escape”: in choosing to depart, you won’t necessarily find one who surrenders, but you will above all find courage, enthusiasm, resilience, a desire to seize an opportunity and to succeed beyond the obstacles at hand. And in their oftentimes distinguished résumés there is not only the proof of that which Italy lacks – an aspect which is sacrosanct to denounce, with the hope that decision makers will, for once, assume responsibility to reverse course – but also that which Italy offers: first and foremost, a low-cost, accessible educational and postgraduate system (if not to everyone, then to a good many). And notwithstanding that international rankings often do not attest to this, and beyond the indisputable criticisms, it remains one of the most efficient of the developed world. Certainly, that which is lacking weighs you down, causes distress, causes worry. But maybe — who knows – with the full knowledge of that which we possess, it is easier to visualize that which we could, and should, have. And fight to attain it.

Translation by Emmelina De Feo

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