Trinity Student is First Undergraduate Intern at Vatican Museums Conservation Laboratory

Sarah Talcott ’17 Has Unique Experience Working on Material Analysis of Art in Rome

Sarah Talcott '17Hartford, Connecticut, September 21, 2016 – As the first Trinity College student to intern in the Vatican Museums Diagnostic Laboratory for Conservation and Restoration in Rome, and the first undergraduate student to work in that lab, Sarah Talcott ’17 (right) experienced a summer unique among her peers. Talcott, a biochemistry major from Old Lyme, Connecticut, spent the months of June, July, and August 2016 working alongside art restoration experts on the collection of one of the most visited art museums in the world.

“Restorers need to collaborate with the lab in order to obtain valuable information about materials in the work of art in question before they begin their restoration work,” Talcott said. “For example, a material the restorer intends to apply to a work for conservation or restoration purposes may react negatively with existing material. So, a complete material analysis of each work of art is necessary before any intervention occurs.”

Talcott received a Catalyst Summer Internship Program grant award through the Catalyst Fund, which helped cover her expenses in Rome this summer. A generous challenge gift to the Career Development Center from Jeff Kelter ’76, P’18, a member of the Board of Trustees, garnered donor support for the Catalyst Fund, supporting interns like Talcott.  The Catalyst Fund is designed to enrich the suite of the Career Development Center’s year-specific programming while building internship opportunities in Hartford and beyond. “Without the Catalyst award, I most likely would not have been able to participate in this internship,” Talcott said. “I am very thankful for the Catalyst award to allow me to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Below, Talcott shares some of her experiences from her time in Rome:

How did you first learn about this internship?

During my spring semester abroad in Rome, I was lucky enough to take a course titled “Art Conservation” with Professor Francesca Persegati, the head of paintings conservation and a master conservator at the Vatican Museums Conservation Laboratory. During her course, like all of my Trinity in Rome classes, we went on weekly site visits to various locations. Because of Professor Persegati’s position at the Vatican, she was able to receive special permission for our class to visit numerous sites inside the Vatican walls. These tours included the mosaic studio, where they make and restore extremely beautiful and intricate mosaics; Villa Pia, which is a private area for the Pope and includes a private chapel and several rooms; and the Diagnostic Laboratory, which I was lucky enough to work in, and many conservation labs.

I have been working in [Vernon K. Krieble Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus] Henry DePhillips’ art conservation research laboratory since the summer after my first year at Trinity. As soon as I stepped foot into the Diagnostic Laboratory at the Vatican, I was very interested in the possibility of working there. Professor Persegati and Professor DePhillips helped me get in contact with the director of the diagnostic laboratories, Professor Ulderico Santamaria, to arrange an interview for the internship I ultimately received.


Professor Francesca Persegati and Sarah Talcott '17 next to 'Adoration of the Magi' by Lorenzo Lotto.

What kind of work did you do in the lab?

In the lab, I had my own project involving the analysis of oils and I also observed and helped with other work. This included accompanying Professor Santamaria when he discussed the correct intervention procedure with the restorers after material analysis has taken place. Regarding my oil analysis project, in a way I worked on a supplement of the project I have been working on in Professor DePhillips’ lab. At Trinity, we have been trying to develop a method for binder (resin, oil and protein) identification using a Direct Analysis in Real Time–Time of Flight–Mass Spectrometer (DART-TOF-MS). We have had continuous trouble with this type of analysis because all oils are very similar. In the Vatican Diagnostic Laboratories, I worked on this same topic with a different instrument, a Gas Chromatograph–Mass Spectrometer (GC-MS). This type of instrumentation requires much more sample preparation and intricate data analysis than the technique I use at Trinity.

In conjunction with the analysis of oil standards, I also worked on identifying oils in paintings. I observed and helped with the material analysis of a painting by Lorenzo Lotto called “Adoration of the Magi” dating between 1548 and 1555. My main contribution to this project was identifying the oil portion of the paint samples.


Sarah Talcott '17What was the work environment like there?

Most interns were in their late 20s or early 30s; I was by far the youngest intern. The work environment is very modern inside the laboratory. Most of the old instruments have been replaced with newer ones, however, in some cases, both the new and old are used simultaneously. There were many other people in the lab I worked in who specialize in different areas such as inorganic and organic analyses. They were all very nice and helped me whenever I needed anything.


How does this internship help prepare you for your future career?

At this point in time, my interests for the future include art conservation research, pharmacology, and medical school. This internship has given me a window into art conservation research, but I would like to have an internship or experience in my other two interests before I ultimately make a decision for further studies and/or career options. With regard to my internship in the Vatican Museums, this experience will help me with any career that I choose. Throughout this internship I have gained valuable laboratory skills. This includes using instruments without help from professors or other professionals, running reactions and cleaning glassware to analytical standards, and, among many other skills, exposure to new instrumentation and techniques. These skills will translate to any scientific field of study I ultimately choose.