Da Vinci — The Genius | Secrets and Revelations: What Would Leonardo Think?

New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, Albuquerque, NM

What would Leonardo think if he could know about the intensive scrutiny his famous portrait has recently undergone? I suspect his scientific mind would be amazed — and pleased(?) — by the extraordinary revelations that today’s technologies have made possible.

A major part of the exhibition, Da Vinci — The Genius, on through July 19th, 2018 at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, features secrets revealed about da Vinci’s Mona Lisa by the “Layer Amplification Method” (LAM) of digital photography.

Mona Lisa is well known for her enigmatic smile, but many other mysteries associated with the painting have long intrigued art historians. Finally, heretofore unseen — even unsuspected — details of the history of this panel have been revealed by a years-long research project.

Using a multi-spectral camera to detect and record the way light of different wavelengths reflects off the surface of the painting, 3.2 billion pieces of data were collected, analyzed, and collated into LAM images. From these images, conclusions could be drawn about the order in which da Vinci applied paints and other materials to the poplar panel.

Would the real Mona Lisa Gherardini please stand up?

First surprise: The painting we call Mona Lisa is not Mona Lisa at all. The portrait that Leonardo painted of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant called Francesco del Giocondo, is actually hidden underneath the now-famous image of the unidentified woman that art historians have told us was Mona Lisa, La Gioconda. Comparing the features makes me wonder if Leonardo might have decided to revise the portrait to portray her as an older woman. Lisa Gherardini did live into her 50s, a ripe old age in those days.

Further surprise: The layers of history mystery don’t end there. Beneath the true Mona Lisa Gherardini portrait, lie yet another two images. The first composition Leonardo laid down on the gesso-prepared panel was an initial draft portrait of an unknown subject, slightly larger than the woman we see depicted in the final layer, but posed in a similar position. Atop this he subsequently painted a “Portrait with Pearls,” now thought to represent a saint or the Madonna. This second layer was then obscured by the true picture of Lisa Gherardini, which is documented as having been commissioned by Giuliano de Medici and was described by Giorgio Vasari in 1550.

Back of Panel (detail) documents repair history and provenance of the Mona Lisa. This label likely dates from when King Louis XIV moved the painting from the Palace of Fontainbleu to his new Palace of Versailles.

Among other revelations: 1) The “Mona Lisa” did not have high cholesterol after all! What had been identified by some as xanthelasma (small deposits of fatty material under the skin around the eyes) turns out to be a mark caused by a “varnish accident,” and 2) she used to have eye lashes and eyebrows, before the very finely-applied paint either faded or was worn off by cleaning.

There are no actual artworks in this exhibition, but a full array of da Vinci’s work is displayed in scaled-to-size reproductions in a gallery next to the Mona Lisa presentation; and a film about the Last Supper is shown in a small adjacent theater. I’m guessing this may well the first time all his paintings have been viewable in one place, other than in a monograph publication.

As with the Mona Lisa, the curatorial focus on Leonardo’s other works considers the application of science in art research.

In one instance, da Vinci’s widely-recognized chalk-drawn self-portrait as an old man is being slowly obliterated by reddish-brown spots. Various theories have been posited over the years about the cause of this deterioration.

In 2015, Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) imaging combined with DNA extraction showed the drawing to be a “zoo of fungal forms,” the particulars of which suggest the original cause of the problem and thus a greater likelihood of being able to halt the progress of the affliction.

In another instance, fingerprinting technology has provided indisputable evidence that La Bella Principessa is not in fact a 19th century German work, (bought for $20,000 in the late 1990s) but rather, is by da Vinci’s hand — with and estimated value of more than $200 million! A fingerprint discovered on La Bella Principessa was found to be a near-perfect match to a known Leonardo print on his St. Jerome painting.

Fingerprint technology confirms an attribution.

One flight up in the museum is the other part of this show, focused on da Vinci’s scientific endeavors. Starting with a display of his notebooks, the exhibit includes models of many of Leonardo’s inventions, recreated in modern times by craftsmen following his centuries-old notations.

Together, these notebooks, or “codices,” contain hundreds of pages of handwritten scientific and technical observations in text and drawings. His interest ranged from civil engineering and instruments of war, to translating the flight of birds into flying machines.

One fascinating example of a war machine model built from a da Vinci design was an armored vehicle. The tank was designed to move in any direction, and it bristled with cannons all around. One man would sit in the turret giving directions to eight others inside the tank who turned cranks to move the wheels and to fire the cannons. Leonardo was ahead of his time: armored vehicles only finally came into use during WWI.

This is not in the purest sense an art exhibition. But it provides fascinating insights into the genius of one of the great figures in Western art history — a man who lived half a millennium ago — as well as looking into the technologies that are being used in modern art historical practice.

Da Vinci — The Genius

On through July 19th, 2018, at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, Albuquerque, NM

Installation view, Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomical Drawings

I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.

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