A beam of silver light erases scrawled black letters on Florence’s historic Ponte Vecchio, as “Angels” wielding a revolutionary new laser wage war on graffiti in the UNESCO site.
Gold glints in the windows of the tiny jeweller boutiques that line the medieval stone bridge, but it is the scribbled messages left by tourists, and passionate declarations by would-be Romeos, that catch the eye.
“My big cat, I love you,” reads one, while others feature interlocking hearts or clumsily drawn flowers.
Now a team of volunteers in the Tuscan city dubbed the “Angels of Beauty” is determined to restore famous monuments to their former glory thanks to a latest-generation infrared wand, donated by Italian laser developer El.En. Group.
“The laser evaporates the graffiti, without damaging the stone underneath,” Daniela Valentini, who heads up the Angels’ team of cultural heritage restorers, told AFP as she pointed the fibre laser’s beam at a scrawled signature.
“Some graffiti is more difficult to remove, certain colours like silver and red for example. And it also depends how long it has been there and how porous the stone is,” she said.
There is a sizzle as a white “I was here” message is burned off the grey stone by the 56-year old, a professional restorer who dons protective glasses for the painstaking task, as curious tourists stop to watch.
“We have cleaned up areas in at least 28 UNESCO world heritage sites around the world,” said El.En general manager Paolo Salvadeo.
The lasers strip dirt from everything from frescoes to statues and bronzes.
The company, which specialises in manufacturing medical and industrial lasers, has donated devices capable of restoring artwork to museums around the world, including the MOMA in New York and the Vatican.
But the laser given to the Angels in Florence is the first to be designed to strip graffiti away — and do so quickly.
It is still a relatively lengthy task: restorers using the device, which has a market worth of some $78,000, can take up to 20 minutes to clean a 10 sq.cm. piece of wall.