What’s new with Leonardo da Vinci

As history marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, several news stories have just come out revealing more interesting details about the Renaissance artist.

First, historians in England have discovered a sketch of Leonardo, making it one of only two surviving portraits of him made during his lifetime. While undertaking research for an exhibition, Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings, Royal Collection Trust, identified the sketch as a study of Leonardo made by an assistant shortly before the master’s death in 1519.


The newly identified image of Leonardo is found on a double-sided sheet of studies. On both sides of the paper are detailed studies by Leonardo of a horse’s leg, made in preparation for an equestrian monument – one of three such monuments planned by the artist during his lifetime, none of which was ever completed. The sheet was then used by another artist (probably an unidentified assistant of Leonardo) to sketch two heads: a handsome smiling youth and a pensive old man with a full beard.

The only other contemporary image of Leonardo is by his pupil, Francesco Melzi, and was produced at around the year 1519. “If you compare this sketch with Francesco Melzi’s portrait of Leonardo, you can see strong indications that this too is a depiction of the artist,” says Clayton. “The elegant straight nose, the line of the beard rising diagonally up the cheek to the ear, a ringlet falling from the moustache at the corner of the mouth, and the long wavy hair are all exactly as Melzi showed them in his portrait. Leonardo was renowned for his well-kept and luxuriant beard, at a time when relatively few men were bearded – though the beard was rapidly coming into fashion at this time.”

The newly discovered portrait of Leonardo da Vinci – image courtesy Royal Collections Trust

“Alongside Melzi’s portrait, this is the only other contemporary likeness of Leonardo. In the sketch, he is aged about 65 and appears a little melancholy and world-weary. However, the presence of the portrait alongside studies for another grand equestrian monument shows that Leonardo’s ambitions remained undimmed in later life.”


Both portraits of Leonardo will go on display alongside 200 drawings by the artist at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace in Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing.  The exhibition explores the full range of Leonardo’s interests – painting, sculpture, architecture, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany – providing a comprehensive survey of the life of Leonardo and the workings of his mind. It runs from May 24th to October 13th, and later on this year will go on display in Edinburgh, Scotland. Visit the Royal Collections Trust website for more details.

Da Vinci’s hand had nerve damage, study says

A fainting episode causing traumatic nerve damage affecting his right hand could be why Leonardo da Vinci’s painting skills were hampered in his late career. While the impairment affected his ability to hold palettes and brushes to paint with his right hand, he was able to continue teaching and drawing with his left hand. According to most authors, the origin of da Vinci’s right hand palsy was related to a stroke.

Doctors writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine reached a different conclusion after analysing a 16th-century drawing of an elderly da Vinci.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by Giovan Ambrogio Figino Image credit: Museum of Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy / Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita’ Culturali e del Turismo

The authors, Dr Davide Lazzeri, a specialist in plastic reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Villa Salaria Clinic in Rome, and Dr Carlo Rossi, a specialist in neurology at the Hospital of Pontedera, focused on a portrait of da Vinci drawn with red chalk attributed to 16th-century Lombard artist Giovan Ambrogio Figino. The drawing is a rare rendering of da Vinci’s right arm in folds of clothing as if it was a bandage, with his right hand suspended in a stiff, contracted position.

“Rather than depicting the typical clenched hand seen in post-stroke muscular spasticity, the picture suggests an alternative diagnosis such as ulnar palsy, commonly known as claw hand,” says Dr Lazzeri.

He suggests that a syncope, or faint, is more likely to have taken place than a stroke, during which da Vinci might have sustained acute trauma of his right upper limb, developing ulnar palsy. The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder to little finger and manages almost all the intrinsic hand muscles that allow fine motor movements.


While an acute cardiovascular event may have been the cause of da Vinci’s death, his hand impairment was not associated with cognitive decline or further motor impairment, meaning a stroke was unlikely. Lazzeri adds, “This may explain why he left numerous paintings incomplete, including the Mona Lisa, during the last five years of his career as a painter while he continued teaching and drawing.”

The article “The right hand palsy of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519): new insights on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death” is available from Sage Journals.

Leonardo’s hair?

Finally, The Guardian reports that another pair of Italian researchers believe they have discovered a piece of Leonardo da Vinci’s hair. It had been kept in a private collection in the United States, but the researchers hope to use DNA testing to confirm it belongs to Leonardo.

Agnese Sabato, president of the Leonardo da Vinci Heritage Foundation, who is one of the researchers, said, “This relic is what we needed to make our historical research even more solid from a scientific point of view. We are planning to carry out DNA analysis on the relic and compare it to Leonardo’s living descendants as well as to bones found in Da Vinci burials that we have identified over the past years.”


Click here to read more about this potential discovery from The Guardian


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