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Nature, the weather and time

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Graphic elementThe facts

Nature, the weather and timeThe storms which swept over France, Germany and Switzerland in December 1999 caused major damage to hundreds of monuments. A few months previously, several earthquakes had struck the Mediterranean countries, damaging in particular the cultural sites of Istanbul and Athens. In 1997, Umbria and the Italian Marches were hit by five earthquakes. The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, which lost whole sections of its structure, including frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto, was their most famous victim. Fires and flooding also regularly cause destruction to monuments.
Each biotope has its own particular form of deterioration - Egypt's limestone is eroded by sandstorms, the granite of the Celtic megaliths by sea salt. Bacteria, algae, lichens and insects are all elements of nature which leave their traces on monuments.
It is also true that nothing - not even a masterpiece - is eternal. The most incorruptible materials age. Paintings buckle, the frameworks of buildings sag, varnishes lose their brilliance, woods and marbles acquire a patina.
Does this mean that we cannot withstand the destructive forces of nature and the passage of time? Not altogether. Nowadays, innovative technologies offer new weapons of prevention, protection and restoration to those in charge of heritage.


Graphic elementAction

Nature, the weather and timeSince 1986, the European Union has been supporting the biggest international research programme dedicated to damage caused to our cultural heritage by the environment. The projects concerned encourage a multidisciplinary approach and cross-border cooperation. Climatologists, biologists and chemists work in concert with engineers, architects, archaeologists and curators of various countries to analyse the state of conservation and the damage suffered by monuments and works of art.
In Europe and throughout the world, the safeguarding of cultural treasures is nowadays a highly important sector of economic activity. Synergies with industry lead to innovations, often based on technologies or materials used for other purposes. This field of research is in fact particularly valuable in terms of technology transfers from areas as diverse as the aerospace industry, pharmacy, medicine, geology, etc. Progress in all these fields is helping to renew preservation strategies. One example, unique in Europe, is the facility for testing earthquake-proof construction technologies at the ELSA Laboratory, part of the Joint Research Centre in Ispra (Italy), where numerous tests of the technologies for protecting historical monuments have been conducted.

Nature, the weather and time

Earthquake-proof surgery in Assisi

Shaken by earthquakes in 1997, the Basilica of St Francis has been subjected to various anti-earthquake treatments. Among these, a project led by an Italian SME, together with the Joint Research Centre of Ispra (IT) and other universities and research centres in Italy, Greece and Portugal, has made it possible to supply a new type of reinforcement: an alloy of nickel and titanium belonging to the shape memory alloy family. As this material is capable of dissipating energy when movement occurs,
it should increase by at least 50% the resistance of structures to earthquakes where it has been inserted.

Nature, the weather and time

When wood suffers from the climate
Wooden components of historical architecture that are sensitive to humidity are deteriorating. European scientists have analysed climatic variables (temperature, rainfall, etc.) at different German, Polish, Swedish and Norwegian sites where some of these wooden monuments are located. The development of a new type of sensor has made it possible to assess the state of preservation and damage suffered. The scientists then drew up a "map of climatic hazards" which provides a knowledge base on which appropriate protective measures can be based.

Nature, the weather and time

Fragile archaeological testimonies
A multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, geologists, microbiologists, osteologists, geochemists, mineralogists and others are analysing bones at various excavation sites and the soil samples surrounding them. Indications as to their condition and state of conservation will make it possible to establish a quality scale for the subterranean environment. For many researchers, these testimonies to our pre-history and history ought, as far as possible, to be preserved in situ.

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