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The legacy of Enrico Fermi. The challenges of the future

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CREF promotes original and high-impact lines of research, based on physical methods, but with a strong interdisciplinary character and in relation to the main problems of the modern knowledge society.

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History of Physics
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The CREF was born with a dual soul: a research centre and a historical museum. Its aim is to preserve and disseminate the memory of Enrico Fermi and to promote the dissemination and communication of scientific culture.

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la ricerca

Physics for Cultural Heritage

Head of Research
Giulia Festa

What is the recipe for preparations and medicines used in past times? How did ancient peoples forge metal? Is it possible to identify the author of a writing through the analysis of the ink used? These are just some of the questions that can be answered through interdisciplinary studies investigating the materials and artefacts of the past using tools and methods specific to scientific disciplines. Finds such as metals, ceramics, manuscripts, stone objects are analyzed using non-destructive and non-invasive chemical-physical techniques and the quantitative information obtained is fundamental for the definition of the attribution, the provenance of the materials, their dating, the state of conservation and the processing techniques.

Purpose and Goals

The “Physics for Cultural Heritage” research line is characterized by experimental analysis activities of materials of historical-artistic interest and by the use of innovative methods for data interpretation such as Machine Learning. Among the materials examined there are ceramics, metals, papers, fabrics, papyrus, inks, bones and organic finds. The aim of the research is archaeological-conservative issues that emerge from collaboration with archaeologists, conservators, chemists, museologists, anthropologists and archivists.

The experimental activities are carried out using the portable instrumentation available in the “Physics for Cultural Heritage” laboratory of the CREF, which can also be used in-situ at the Museums, possibly integrated by measurements at Large Scale Facilities through programs for access to advanced instrumentation neutrons and synchrotron radiation. The staff is also engaged in scientific dissemination activities relating to the line of research, in close connection with the museum and outreach activities of the organisation.


Contents and Methods

All studies are conducted using non-destructive and non-invasive techniques such as X-ray fluorescence (ED-XRF), Raman spectroscopy and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) available in the CREF laboratory, and other techniques complements such as X-ray and neutron diffraction, gamma spectroscopy, X-ray and neutron imaging available through access to external research infrastructures.

The main research activities carried out or underway in the reference period are presented in detail below:

Pigments, binders and their interaction. The study involves experimental activities followed by multivariate statistics and Machine Learning for the analysis of paintings. Development of a new data analysis method for the characterization of paintings using spectroscopic techniques and Machine Learning. The study provides the basis for any analysis of paintings, with particular attention paid to the well-known painter Michelangelo Merisi, also known as Caravaggio.

In-situ neutron diffraction for the analysis of the crystalline structure of bones subjected to anaerobic combustion. The study allowed us to identify and quantify structural and crystallinity changes during heating under anaerobic conditions to identify temperature biomarkers. The work carried out, as well as in archaeology, can also impact forensic science, paving the way towards a new field of research.

Metallurgy in ancient Egypt. Study the processing techniques of metal vases from the Funerary Kit of Kha and Merit (Egyptian Museum of Turin) using X-ray diffraction and Machine Learning.

Mineral benchmarks in Sumerian ceramics. The study concerns the development of a new approach through FTIR spectroscopy and machine learning to identify primary and secondary phases and thermal alterations due to the cooking processes of raw materials. The procedure was applied to studying Sumerian ceramics from the archaeological site of Abu Tbeirah (4000-2000 BC) in Iraq.

Elemental and molecular benchmarks in EVOO. Development of an analytical procedure for quality monitoring, traceability and safety assessment in the food industry of Italian extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) using infrared spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence and Machine Learning. In particular, it is possible to identify the geographical origin, the type of cultivar used, and any adulteration. The work has a significant impact on the field of Food Science.

Hydrogen Detection Limits and Instrument Sensitivity. Development of new methods for rigorously determining the instrumental sensitivity of inelastic neutron scattering (INS) spectrometers. The work provides a reference point against which to evaluate the performance of current and future tools.

Burial rites of Imperial Rome. The study concerns the analysis through vibrational spectroscopies of bone remains found in the Ghirlande Hypogeum, in Grottaferrata (Rome). The Ghirlande Hypogeum is an extraordinary Roman burial site dating back to the 1st-2nd century AD. and discovered in 2000. The results obtained provide significant elements for understanding the history of the site and the burial rites.

Preparations and medicines from the 17th and 18th centuries. Study in collaboration with the Medical Museum of Sapienza University of Rome, with the participation of Dr. Miriam Focaccia. The activities aim to understand pharmacology and pharmacopoeias as well as the formulations of ancient preparations and medicines. We adopted a multidisciplinary approach that combines chemical-physical characterization with historical-scientific information and cultural contextualization.

Manuscripts and book texts from the 17th and 18th centuries. Study in collaboration with the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome regarding manuscripts such as the original copy of the magnum opus of the Jesuit Antonio Vieira (1608-1697 BC). The study involves the analysis of cutting-edge adhesives, inks, papers and restoration products to test their durability and effectiveness.

Study of the watermarks of the Corpus Chartarum Italicarum of the 16th century. Combined study of spectroscopic techniques such as all of Europe.

Numismatics. The study concerns the analysis of coins belonging to different collections of different historical periods and origins for the identification of specific benchmarks for attribution and authentication.

SiO2 nanoparticles. New conservation treatments of Pietraforte Arenaria tested on samples from Renaissance Palaces in Florence.

Neutron Imaging and machine learning techniques. Development of new imaging data analysis techniques for the optimization of new methodologies for the extraction of significant features.


Attività di outreach della linea di ricerca. Outreach activities

  • [2023] Visita al laboratorio di Fisica per i Beni Culturali nell’ambito delle visite museali. 
  • [2022] G. Festa. Festival della Scienza di Roma. Nell’ambito delle attività del Festival delle Scienze di Roma, partecipazione al Podcast di Adriana Migliucci “Stesi dalle Tesi.”. 
  • [2022] G. Festa. Ossa, spettrometri e antichi rimedi. Quando la fisica incontra l’archeologia, Digitour, Festival della Scienza di Genova, 24 ottobre 2022. 
  • [2022] Notte europea dei ricercatori, Fisica per i Beni Culturali. Attività di divulgazione scientifica presso il CREF.
  • [2022] “Tutela e conservazione: i restauratori raccontano”. Presentazione degli ultimi interventi di restauro sui cimeli del museo, 7 maggio 2022 – MuGa, Polo Culturale Mentana. 
  • [2022] Invisible Colours. 2 a edizione Evento online per le scuole superiori, Giulia Festa, La ricerca attraverso i colori, 27 aprile 2022. 
  • [2022] Quantum Weeks a via Panisperna, 14 aprile 2022, visita ai laboratori di Fisica per i Beni Culturali. 
  • [2022] Webinar 11 febbraio – CREF in occasione della Giornata internazionale delle donne e delle ragazze nella scienza, Scienziate di oggi incontrano scienziat* di domani, venerdì 11 febbraio 2022. 
  • [2021] Ideazione e realizzazione della prima edizione del concorso per le scuole superiori Invisible Colours. 1 a edizione, Evento online, 27 aprile 2021

Nel prossimo triennio si prevede di dedicare una percentuale del tempo del personale per attività di outreach e divulgazione scientifica tramite la partecipazione ad eventi di divulgazione, seminari, attività specifiche e progetti di disseminazione della cultura scientifica e dei risultati della ricerca.

Di seguito sono riportate le collaborazioni nazionali ed internazionali in corso. 

  • Anthropological Service – Soprintendenza Archeologia del Lazio e dell’Etruria Meridionale 
  • British Museum (London, UK) 
  • Centro Restauro Venaria Reale (Torino) 
  • CNR-ISC 
  • CSIC- Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Spagna) 
  • ISIS Spallation Neutron Source (Oxford, UK) 
  • Museo Egizio (Torino) 
  • Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Firenze) 
  • Paul Scherrer Institut, Villigen (Switzerland) 
  • Sapienza Università di Roma (Roma) 
  • University College London (Inghilterra) 
  • Archivio Università Pontificia Gregoriana (Roma) 
  • Istituto Centrale per la Patologia degli Archivi e del Libro
  • Università Politecnica di Valencia, Dip. Fisica Applicata (Spagna) 
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (USA) 
  • Polo Culturale Mentana (MuCaM – museo civico archeologico di Mentana e dell’agro nomentano, MuGa – museo garibaldino, MASCO- Mentana Archivio Storico Comunale) 

Amendment to MoU tra Science and Technology Facilities Council (parte dell’United Kingdom Research and Innovation) ed il CREF riguardo ricerca scientifica di mutuo interesse per le parti presso la sorgente di neutroni a spallazione ISIS (Oxfordshire, UK). Referente tecnico-scientifico- Dott.ssa G. Festa. Periodo di validità: 1 novembre 2020 – 31 ottobre 2025.

Convenzioni di ricerca in corso afferenti alla linea di ricerca: 

  1. Dipartimento di Scienze del Patrimonio Culturale dell’Università degli Studi di Salerno (Numismatica), referente CREF: Giulia Festa. 
  2. Archivio Storico Pontificia Università Gregoriana (Beni Cartacei e supporti per la scrittura), referente CREF: Giulia. Festa. 
  3. Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) Doctoral Centre, University College London (Neutronica per lo studio di metalli), referente CREF – G. Festa. 
  4. MIC – Istituto Centrale per la Patologia degli Archivi e del Libro (Beni Cartacei e supporti di scrittura di origine naturale), referente CREF: Giulia Festa. 
  5. Sono inoltre in corso attività di ricerca congiunte nell’ambito del dottorato in archeologia dell’University College London (UCL) in collaborazione con il CSIC-Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas in Galizia per lo studio di manufatti in metallo dell’età del bronzo conservati presso il British Museum di Londra, referente CREF: Giulia Festa.

Nel prossimo triennio si prevede il rafforzamento e l’ampliamento dei contatti con i Musei, in ambito regionale, nazionale ed internazionale, tramite la stipula di ulteriori nuove convenzioni finalizzate ad attività di ricerca congiunte a medio e lungo termine.

Giulia Festa (90%), Claudia Scatigno (90%), Miriam Focaccia (3%), Lorenzo Teodonio associato CREF (100%). 

  • G. Festa (corresponding author), M.S. Maggio, L. Teodonio, C. Scatigno, “Ancient handwriting attribution via spectroscopic benchmarks and machine learning: ‘Clavis Prophetarum’ by Antonio Viera”, Expert Systems With Applications, 227, 120328, 2023
  • G. Festa (corresponding author), A.P. Mamede, D. Gonçalves, E. Cuna, W. Kockelmann, S.F. Parker, L.A.E. Batista de Carvalho and M.P.M. Marques, “In-situ anaerobic heating of human bones probed by neutron diffraction”, Anal. Chem. 95, 4, 2469–2477, 2023
  • C. Scatigno, G. Festa (corresponding author), “Neutron Imaging and Learning Algorithms: New Perspectives in cultural heritage applications”, Journal of Imaging, 8(10), 284284, 2022 
  • F. Valentini, P. Pallecchi, M. Relucenti, O. Donfrancesco, G. Sottili, I. Pettiti, V. Mussi, S. De Angelis, C. Scatigno, G. Festa. “SiO2 nanoparticles as new repairing treatments toward the Pietraforte Limestone in Florence Renaissance buildings”, Crystals, 12, 9, 1182, 2022 
  • L. Teodonio, C. Scatigno, M. Missori, G. Festa, “Late Middle Age Watermarked Italian paper: a Machine Learning spatial-temporal approach”, Journal of Cultural Heritage, 57, 53-59, 2022 
  • C. Scatigno and G. Festa, “FTIR coupled with machine learning to unveil spectroscopic benchmarks in the Italian EVOO”, International Journal of Food Science and Technology, 57, 7, 4156 – 4162, 2022 
  • G. Festa (corresponding author), M. Rubini, P. Zaio, A. Gozzi, N. Libianchi, S.F. Parker, G. Romanelli, L.A.E. Batista de Carvalho, M.P.M. Marques, “Vibrational spectroscopy to study ancient Roman funerary practices at the Hypogeum of Garlands”, Scientific Reports, 12, 3707, 2022 
  • G. Festa, C. Scatigno, M.L. Saladino, F. Armetta, V. Ciaramitaro, V. Mollica Nardo, R.C. Ponterio, “Chemometric tools to point out benchmarks and chromophores in pigments through spectroscopic data analyses”, Molecules: Physical Chemistry in Cultural Heritage, 27, 163, 2022 
  • M. Leona, K. Fukunaga, H. Liang, P. Baglioni, G. Festa (corresponding authors for the section “How can we see the internal structure and composition of 3D objects”), V. Levchenko. From “Physics to art and back”, Nature Reviews Physics. x, 2021 
  • C. Scatigno, G. Festa, “A first elemental pattern and geo-discrimination of Italian EVOO by energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence and chemometrics”, Microchemical Journal, 171, 106863, 2021 
  • C. Scatigno, N. Prieto-Taboada, G. Festa, J. M. Madariaga, “Soluble salts quantitative characterization and thermodynamic modeling on Roman Bricks to assess the origin of their formation”, Molecules, 26, 10, 2866, 2021 
  • G. Festa, M.L. Saladino, V. Mollica Nardo, V. Renda, G. Nasillo, R. Pitonzo, A. Spinella, M. Borla, E. Ferraris, V. Turina, R.C. Ponterio, “Identifying the Unknown Content of an Ancient Egyptian Sealed Alabaster Vase from Kha and Merit’s Tomb Using Multiple Techniques and Multicomponent Sample Analysis in an Interdisciplinary Applied Chemistry Course”, Journal of Chemical Education, 98, 2, 461–468, 2021

PRIN 2022) – SLOW SUMER. Repair, Reuse, Recycling and Southern Mesopotamian Society in the Changing World of 2500-2000 BC. Coordinatore CREF Dott.ssa G. Festa, contributo

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