MADRID – As one of the world's most iconic paintings nears its 75th anniversary, it is getting a full health check from a robot.
A giant robotic machine is taking tens of thousands of microscopic shots of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," the black-and-white anti-war masterpiece, to allow experts to penetrate the work like never before and see its real condition after a hectic life traveling the globe.
Madrid's Reina Sofia museum — where "Guernica" is housed — has teamed up with Spanish telecommunication company Telefonica to develop the technology, which uses advanced infrared and ultraviolet photography.
The machine was built so that "Guernica" does not have to make the risky move to a conservation laboratory, where normally such investigative work would be done.
"The painting is in delicate condition given that it has suffered a lot of movement and many alterations," said Jorge García Gómez-Tejedor, the museum's head of conservation.
"You could compare it to a major medical checkup in the sense that it needs to be constantly monitored and watched over."
Every night after the museum shuts its doors — and on Tuesdays when the museum is closed — 'Pablito' as the robotic mechanism has been dubbed, is dragged out and placed roughly a meter from the 27-sq. meter (291-sq. foot) painting.
Throughout the night the 9-meter (30-ft.) long, 5-meter (16-ft.) tall structure weighing 1.5 tons painstakingly scans the masterpiece, slowly compiling photographic DNA.
It can be programmed to take the camera lenses closer or farther away from the painting depending on the shot needed and has a precision of movement of 25 microns, or 25 thousandths of a millimeter, allowing analysts to see even air bubbles and scratches undetectable by the human eye.
"It will give us untold information about the painting," said Humberto Durán, the restoration computer technician who presided over the project's design. Durán said the process will give a complete view of the painting's underlying preparatory drawings and all the later touchups it was subjected to.
"The principal idea behind the project is to be able to present to the scientific world and the public the state of conservation of the painting," said García Gómez-Tejedor. He said that for the moment "Guernica" does not need to be restored.
The cost of the machine has not been revealed but leading newspaper El Pais said it was close to euro300,000 ($400,000).
The painting underwent a similar photographic combing in 1998 albeit with much less advanced camera equipment and without the precision of the robotic machine. That study turned up 129 imperfections — ranging from cracks to creases to marks and stains — all attributed to the painting's hectic past.
Picasso created "Guernica" as a commission for Spain's Republican government to represent the country at a Universal Exposition in Paris in 1937, as Spain writhed in a bloody civil war started by future dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.
The painting then went on the road for nearly 20 years, visiting dozens of cities on both sides of the Atlantic. Every time it was moved it had to be taken off its support and rolled up, a process that took its toll over the years.
The painting made its final trip when it was transferred to Spain in 1981 from New York's Museum of Modern Art, where it had been deposited on a long-term loan by Picasso until democracy was restored in Spain.
For fear of attack, it was initially housed behind bullet-proof glass and under armed guard at the Prado Museum in Madrid before it was eventually transferred to the Reina Sofia.
Picasso was a world-renowned figure at the time of its composition and the work quickly became an artistic and political icon.
The oil-on-canvas piece comprises tormented and distorted figures — human and animal — and represents the horrors of mechanized war. It took its name from Guernica, the ancestral capital of northern Spain's Basque country, which was bombed on April 26, 1937, a spring market day, by German and Italian air forces supporting Franco in a civil war that set the stage for World War II.
Although estimates of the number of people killed in the bombing vary greatly, town historians say local records show at least 120 deaths.
The Basque region has long demanded that the painting be moved there, at least temporarily, but both the Reina Sofia and Spain's parliament flatly refuse.
"The painting is very fragile, its format is big and complex, any movement would involve a lot of risk." said García Gómez-Tejedor.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.