Da Vinci's Hidden Face
This enigmatic silhouette of a man with a hat represents the controversy over what Leonardo da Vinci looked like. Drawn by Leonardo himself at age 40, it is widely accepted as a self-portrait, although most facial features are hidden. Experts have never been certain what Leonardo looked like.
"Was he really handsome? Were his eyes blue? And what about his nose? I can't honestly provide any certain answer," said Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where the artist was born on April 15, 1452.
The Five Types
According to Vezzosi, who has just published the book "The Portraits of Leonardo," there are five categories of da Vinci portraits. Most likely, said Vezzosi, the true face of the Renaissance genius lies hidden within those paintings.
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Type One: The Windsor Profile
The portrait thought most likely to be a true portrait of da Vinci is kept at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom. Drawn in red chalk by Francesco Melzi, da Vinci's faithful disciple, the portrait might date to 1510, thus depicting the Florentine genius when he was 58.
But according to Vezzosi, the chalk drawing is idealized rather than a realistic portrait, suggesting that it was created later to preserve "Leonardo's happy memory."
Type Two: The So-Called Self-Portrait of Turin
Preserved in a library in Turin, Italy, this famous red chalk drawing is the only work largely agreed to be a self-portrait by da Vinci. It dates to around 1515, when Leonardo was 63. The amiable old man depicted in the drawing appears to be of a much older age, and indeed various sources report that the master looked 10 years older than his age.
Type Three: A Suffering Leonardo
This 16th-century category consists of three quarter-view portraits in which an elderly da Vinci is always represented with a hat, showing all the signs of age. As with this portrait by the Lombard painter Giovan Ambrogio Figino (1548-1608), da Vinci is often depicted with his right hand hanging in a stiff position.
Various sources report that the left-handed Leonardo was afflicted with paralysis of his right hand during his last years. According to Vezzosi, the paralysis would explain da Vinci's inactivity for the last five years of his life.
Type Four: Profile With Pointed Cap
Published in Giorgio Vasari's "The Lives of the Artists" (1568), this portrait by Cristoforo Coriolano enjoyed a large popularity until the 18th century.Vasari added the pointed cap, which distinguished a man of science and letters.
The 16th-century painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari described Leonardo as "an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved."
Type Five: The False Uffizi Self-Portrait
Starting in the first half of the 18th century, many Leonardo portraits took inspiration from a painting at the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Celebrated as a self-portrait by the Florentine master for more than two centuries, this portrait was dismissed as a fake in 1938, when X-rays revealed it was made at least a century after da Vinci's death in 1519.
New Portraits Surface
In recent years there have been several claims of the re-discovery of da Vinci portraits.
"It happens quite often that any image of an old man with a beard and a hat is recognized as a portrait of Leonardo," Vezzosi said. Among the most recent is an oil painting on wood discovered in the private collection of an aristocratic family from Acerenza, a hill town near Potenza in southern Italy. The portrait fits the category of the false Uffizi self-portrait.
"We need to find out the exact dating of this portrait. I have excluded the possibility that we are dealing with a self-portrait painted by Leonardo himself. Nevertheless, the Acerenza portrait is intriguing because it adds a new element to the Leonardo's puzzle. Here we have Leonardo depicted as a middle-aged, blue-eyed man," Vezzosi said.
Hidden in the Codex
In a discovery worthy of a Dan Brown novel, Italian science journalist Piero Angela recently claimed to have spotted what could be a Leonardo self-portrait underneath lines of ink handwriting in da Vinci's own "Codex on the Flight of Birds."
Initially only a nose was visible. Digital techniques made it possible to resurrect the original sketch, and a drawing of a young man with long hair and a slight beard appeared. The research team used criminal investigation techniques to "age" the sketched portrait. The result was an impressive resemblance to the most authenticated da Vinci self-portrait, the red chalk drawing from Turin's Biblioteca Reale.
Da Vinci's Fingerprints
This fingerprint represents the only biological trace of Leonardo da Vinci, who died on May 2, 1519, in Amboise, France. Although some believe that his remains rest in the Chapelle St. Hubert in Amboise, most scholars agree that they were dispersed in the 16th century during religious wars.
Forensic techniques have allowed Luigi Capasso, an anthropologist at Chieti University, to reconstruct an entire fingertip from the dozens of prints left by da Vinci on his notebooks, drawings and paintings.