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DNA Analysis Could Prove if This Lock of Hair Belonged to Leonardo da Vinci

Researchers will compare results of DNA test to genetic material extracted from artist’s living descendants and his alleged remains

The lock of hair is set to go on view as of May 2, 2019, the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death (Public domain)
smithsonian.com

A lock of hair held by a private collector in the United States may be the key to mapping Leonardo da Vinci’s DNA.

As Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Ideale Leonardo da Vinci Museum in the artist’s hometown of Vinci, and Agnese Sabato, president of the Leonardo da Vinci Heritage Foundation, explain in a statement, “We found, across the Atlantic, a lock of hair historically tagged ‘Les Cheveux de Leonardo da Vinci’”—French for “Leonardo da Vinci’s hair.”

Vezzosi adds, “This historical relic … has long remained hidden in an American collection. It will now be exposed for the first time, along with documents attesting [to] its ancient French provenance.”

According to the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida, Vezzosi and Sabato will present the singular strand to the public during a Thursday press conference held at Vinci’s Leonardiana Library. Timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, which occurred on May 2, 1519, the ceremony will mark the “official start” of scientific investigations into the hair’s origins, as Michele Giuntini writes for Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata.

To assess the lock, researchers will conduct DNA analysis and compare their findings to genetic material extracted from the artist’s living descendants, as well as bones presumed to belong to the original Renaissance Man.

Although da Vinci had no children of his own, Smithsonian.com’s Jason Daley reports that back in 2016, Vezzosi and Sabato used a trove of Italian, French and Spanish historical documents detailing the artist’s paternal line to reconstruct 15 generations of his family tree and identify 35 contemporary descendants. Among others, these modern relatives include an accountant, a pastry chef, an architect and Oscar-nominated film director Franco Zeffirelli.

Prior to the hair's discovery, it was unclear whether any samples of the artist’s DNA had survived the intervening centuries. As Sarah Knapton reported for the Telegraph in 2016, Leonardo, who left his home country of Italy to work for French King Francis I in 1515, was originally buried in the chapel of Saint-Florentin at the Loire Valley’s Château d’Amboise. During the late 18th-century, however, revolutionaries destroyed the building housing the artist’s remains. According to Atlas Obscura, Leonardo’s purported bones were rediscovered in 1863 and subsequently moved to the castle’s smaller chapel of Saint-Hubert, where they rest to this day alongside a plaque warning that the site is simply the “presumed” location of the Renaissance master’s grave.

Around the same time that historians announced the identification of Leonardo’s living descendants, an international team of researchers published an ambitious plan for sequencing the artist’s genome. Led by scientists from California’s J. Craig Venter Institute, the Leonardo da Vinci DNA Project set out to test paintings, notebooks and drawings for traces of DNA such as fingerprints, skin flakes and strands of hair.

“If human DNA is obtained from Leonardo’s work and sequenced, the genetic material can then be compared with genetic information from skeletal or other remains that may be exhumed,” Jesse Ausubel, vice-chairman of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which funded the initiative, told the Telegraph’s Knapton. (A similar strategy was famously used to identify the remains of England’s Richard III after a skeleton said to be his was unearthed below a Leicester parking lot in 2012.)

While the lock of hair currently making headlines wasn’t found intermingled with the paint on one of Leonardo’s canvases, it will essentially fulfill the same purpose as one identified under these circumstances, enabling researchers to test and compare multiple samples alleged to contain the artist’s DNA.

This latest genome mapping attempt is one of many events planned to commemorate the fifth centenary of Leonardo’s death: Writing for La Nazione, Ilaria Biancalani points out that the hair is set to go on view in the artist’s hometown of Vinci, which will host an exhibition titled Leonardo Lives, celebrate the reopening of the Ideale Leonardo da Vinci Museum, and inaugurate a new museum dedicated to da Vinci and wine. Further afield, the Louvre will launch a blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci retrospective poised to unite as many of the Old Master’s paintings “as possible,” while Great Britain’s Royal Collection Trust will spotlight more than 200 of the polymath’s eclectic drawings.

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