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UGA Cortona program begins new Chemistry in the Arts course

During the four years that Michelangelo Buonarroti spent painting the frescoes on the ceiling of Rome’s Sistine Chapel, odds are he wasn’t thinking about chemistry. But he certainly knew how science and art came together and what he had to do if he wanted his work to last.

Students from the University of Georgia will be thinking about science this summer as they take a new course called “Chemistry in the Arts,” taught as part of the summer session at the Cortona Studies Abroad Program in Italy, part of the Lamar Dodd School of Art. And in everything from the chemical reactions in frescoes to the bonding of molecules in papermaking, students will have a first-hand experience in how art and science have been intertwined from their first days as disciplines.

“The course is designed to provide a basic understanding of the chemistry behind the generation and conversation of artwork,” said Richard Morrison, associate professor and director of organic chemistry instruction at UGA and teacher of the course. “Knowing more about these processes strengthens our appreciation for the techniques and the artists who mastered them.”

Richard Morrison is no stranger to art or to UGA’s program in Cortona. His wife, Margaret Morrison, is an assistant professor of drawing and painting in UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art and a veteran of the much-written-about Cortona program. A visit with her to Cortona two years ago led to a guest lecture on the chemistry of papermaking and then to the development of the new course that combines art and chemistry.

Because the reaction of both students and fellow professors was so positive, Richard Morrison began discussions about teaching a full class on chemistry in the arts at Cortona. Nobody had to explain why.

“Chemistry is the underpinning of all the artwork the students are doing,” said Morrison. “What we realized is that we could create a section of CHEM 1110/1110L, a survey course of chemistry for non-science majors, which would present chemistry from the vantage point of art generation and conservation.”

After a considerable amount of study on ways to make the new course enrich but not overlap other study areas offered in Cortona, Morrison developed a class with the following general areas:

  • Art materials and processes
  • Preparing fresco plaster for the “arriccio” and “intonaco” layers (The arriccio layer is the plaster layer immediately underneath the painting layer. It is prepared by combining sand and slaked lime in a 2:1 mixture. The intonaco layer, which is an 8:5 mixture of sand to slaked lime, is the top or painting layer of the plaster. It is applied to the dried arriccio layer, smoothed with a trowel and then painted while the plaster is still wet.)
  • Acids and metals in printmaking
  • Oxidations in black-and-white photography and bronze patination
  • Pulp and papermaking
  • Pigments, color and light
  • Egg tempera, emulsions and applications in art conservation

The students began their class by looking at the amazing frescoes still extant in the excavated city of Pompeii, which was destroyed and buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the summer of 79 A.D. Remarkably preserved because the city was buried in pyroclastic flows, the frescoes show just how long-lasting the technique of painting on properly prepared wet plaster can be.

“The course goes from there to the study of frescoes—the chemical compositions necessary to prepare the surface plasters properly—and the reasons why this surface was used in places like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” said Morrison.

Upperclassmen also have the opportunity to take the class at the 4100 level, where students examine recent restoration efforts and the challenges encountered in art preservation and conservation. (At this level, it’s a special topics in chemistry course,)

For more than 40 years the Cortona Program has provided an opportunity for students to combine foreign travel with an intensive period of studio and classroom work. It offers a variety of studio and academic courses during the Spring, Summer and Fall semesters.

Although the major emphasis of the program is to expose students to the wealth of historical masterpieces, there are also opportunities to see modern Italian art and to visit contemporary exhibitions. The program stresses its residential nature; therefore, ample time is available for sustained studio and research work.

For more information on the Cortona program, see

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