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The pigment vermilion has been a favourite of artists for centuries, but it is notorious for turning black as it degrades over time. But the source of the black colouring, found in works ranging from ancient Roman frescoes to the baroque paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, has been unclear. Now researchers have shown that the culprit is elemental mercury, which forms under exposure to light and chlorine ions in the air. The finding is the first step to devising a way for conservators to prevent further degradation of historic masterpieces.
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