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How a Hidden Figure Emerged From One of Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks

Modern imaging reveals the approximately 500-year-old sketch

One of Leonardo's notebooks (left) contains an erased figure (right). Conservators discovered the hidden sketch using multispectral imaging. (British Library)
smithsonian.com

Leonardo da Vinci was an irrepressible doodler—his notebooks are filled with sketches of everything from aeronautics to anatomy. Now, something new has emerged from one of the master’s roughly 500-year-old notebooks: a figure he apparently went to great pains to erase.

Using multispectral imaging analysis, curators at the British Library have discovered a hidden figure in a notebook called the Codex Arundel 263. The technique, which is just one of a barrage of new ways to get even closer to art, is gaining steam among conservators who want to get a better look at historical objects without damaging them.

Here’s how it works: A piece of art is placed beneath a special camera and photos are taken of parts of the light spectrum that can’t be detected by the human eye. When the photos are stacked on top of one another, they reveal an ultra high-resolution image of the object or piece of art, including secret details that have been damaged, faded, erased or painted over. The technique has been used to help verify historic signatures on a ukulele, show invisible details on an influential map and even reveal lost text in the 1215 Magna Carta

In this case, the analysis revealed a figure of a naked man that had been erased by da Vinci or someone else. In a blog post about the find, Dr. Christina Duffy, an imaging scientist at the British Library, writes that "the images raise fascinating questions about why the figure was drawn here, and why great efforts were made to erase it."

Was the sketch removed for personal reasons—or just because da Vinci, a notorious perfectionist, wasn’t happy with his own doodle? The answer will likely never be found. Until conservators figure out a way to use technology to actually go back in time, just discovering the existence of the hidden image is as good as it gets. If you want to see the notebook in person, head to the British Library—the notebook is on display in its Treasures Collection until the end of March.

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