Fresh chemical analysis illuminates Leonardo da Vinci’s technique in creating the Mona Lisa

Estimated read time 4 min read

A | a-+=

The renowned artwork known as the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, depicting a woman with an enigmatic smile.

As she gazes from her sanctuary behind the protective glass of the Louvre, the Mona Lisa grins mysteriously at those who wander through the museum, as if she holds a clandestine truth. This puzzling masterpiece has, for an extended duration, piqued the curiosity of art historians and scholars, igniting their contemplation on both the subject’s life and the artistic techniques employed by the maestro, Leonardo da Vinci.

In a surprising revelation this week, the painting finally divulged one of its long-held secrets. A cutting-edge, technologically advanced analysis, detailed in the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, has illuminated fresh perspectives on this iconic masterpiece.

Utilizing a particle-accelerating apparatus, scientists conducted a thorough examination of the chemical composition of a minuscule paint fragment discreetly nestled in a corner of the artwork. Within that tiny fragment, they uncovered an uncommon compound known as plumbonacrite. Remarkably, traces of plumbonacrite were also identified in samples procured from Leonardo’s renowned mural, “The Last Supper.”

Plumbonacrite, a byproduct of lead oxide, strongly suggests that Leonardo employed lead oxide powder to enhance the density and expeditious drying of his paints—a supposition that had long intrigued art historians. This latest analysis bolsters their hypothesis with additional compelling evidence.

The significance of this discovery extends beyond the realm of art history, potentially offering valuable insights for conservators engaged in the restoration of Leonardo’s artistic oeuvre, as stated by the study’s lead author, Victor Gonzalez, a chemist affiliated with France’s National Center for Scientific Research.

Through the application of X-ray technology, scientists delved into the intricate chemical composition of a minute portion of the painting, which has withstood the test of time for over five centuries. Within their examination, these researchers unveiled a previously undisclosed technique employed by Leonardo.

A collaborative team hailing from both France and Britain uncovered the presence of oil-based paint within the artwork.

Within the context of the imaging study, the minuscule paint speck is of a thickness akin to that of a human hair and resides within the upper right quadrant of the painting.

To probe its atomic configuration, the scientists harnessed X-rays within a synchrotron—an apparatus capable of accelerating particles to nearly the speed of light, facilitating a more profound exploration of the paint’s inner structure.

“Plumbonacrite is really a fingerprint of his recipe,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the first time we can actually chemically confirm it.”

Leonardo’s genius transcended the realms of art; he was a polymath encompassing roles as an inventor, engineer, architect, and scientist. In his artistic endeavors, the Italian Renaissance maestro reveled in experimenting with diverse technical approaches.

Scholars posit that Leonardo amalgamated lead oxide powder with either walnut or linseed oil, subjecting the mixture to heat until it coalesced into a substantial paste. The intrinsic orange hue of lead oxide would have bestowed upon the oil a resplendent golden tint.

It is highly likely that he meticulously applied this honeyed concoction to the poplar wood panel upon which he immortalized the Mona Lisa, a project undertaken between 1503 and 1519. Additionally, experts suggest that he might have employed this recipe on the underlying wall for The Last Supper.

These recent findings are not isolated instances; in previous research, plumbonacrite was also detected in works by the Dutch master, Rembrandt, including his renowned piece, “The Night Watch” (1642). Remarkably, the temporal distance between Leonardo and Rembrandt indicates the enduring legacy of this lead oxide mixture, portraying it as a venerable artistic “recipe” passed down through the annals of time, as elucidated by Victor Gonzalez.

While sifting through Leonardo’s voluminous notes, the researchers uncovered scant references to lead oxide. When he did mention it, it was often related to applications in hair and skin remedies, as noted by the researchers in their statement.

However, they emphasize that even though he may not have explicitly documented this particular recipe, the recent analysis serves as compelling evidence that lead oxides held a significant position within the repertoire of the old master.

This, in turn, suggests that these lead-based compounds might have played an integral role in the crafting of the timeless masterpieces we revere today.

(Source:  Journal of the American Chemical Society | VOA Learning English |

You May Also Like