The study shows that what can be a feast for the human eye may literally be a feast for microorganisms colonising paintings.
But researchers found that while some microbes destroy such works of art, others might be employed to protect them.
Researchers say the wide variety of organic and inorganic materials that comprise a painting - such as canvas, oil, pigments, and varnish - can provide an 'ideal environment' for colonising bacteria and fungi.
This increases the risk of biodegradation.
To find these microorganisms, scientists looked at a piece called 'Incoronazione della Virgine' completed by Italian artist Carlo Bononi in 1620.
Dr Elisabetta Caselli and her colleagues from the University of Ferrara removed a 4 mm2 section of the painted surface next to a damaged area.
Using a combination of microscopy and microbial culture techniques, the researchers identified a variety of microbes which had colonised the painting.
They isolated multiple strains of Staphylococcus and Bacillus bacteria as well as filamentous fungi of the Aspergillus, Penicillium, Cladosporium, and Alternaria genera.
The research team noted that some of the 17th Century paint pigments used, notably red lac and red and yellow earths, may be nutrient sources for the microbes.
They also tested a decontaminating biocompound which contained spores of three Bacillus bacteria.
They found that they could inhibit growth of both the bacteria and the fungi isolated from the painting.
The researchers concluded that a wide range of bacterial and fungal species may inhabit such ancient paintings but biocompounds potentially represent a new approach for preserving works of art at risk of biodegradation.
Dr Caselli said: 'Clarification of biotederioration processes in artworks is important, as it could help in preventing or solving the associated damages.'
She added: 'This study investigated such aspects in a 17th Century painting, by analysing both microbial communities and chemical composition of painting, also evaluating a possible biological way to counteract these phenomena.'
The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.
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