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Revealed: Leonardo da Vinci’s Reddish-Brown Thumbprint

The inky impression made on an anatomical drawing of a woman will go on view to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death

(Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)
smithsonian.com

People have been obsessed with the wellspring of Leonardo da Vinci’s mind for centuries. More recently, however researchers, have become increasingly interested in Leonardo, the physical being—there are projects searching for traces of the Renaissance genius’s DNA, to re-draw his confusing family tree and even figure out just what the artist looked like. Now, researchers believe they’ve found another snippet of Leonardo: a thumbprint.

A drawing held by the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle appears to contain his full digit impressed on it. The work, drawn around 1509 or 1510, depicts the cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman. Conservators identified the inky impression near the left arm of the cadaver.

Partial prints and smudges from Leonardo have been found on other drawing in the past. The markings on this drawing had, in fact, been observed before, reports Mark Brown at The Guardian, however, curators did not realize the quality and significance of them until they began preparing for a new exhibition.

“This is as close as you are ever going to get to Leonardo, when you can see his print as clearly as this. It is so clear it almost looks deliberate,” Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings at the Royal Collection Trust, tells Brown.

The digit will be detailed in a new book called Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look coming out next month by da Vinci expert Alan Donnithorne, who served as the former Head of Paper Conservation at the Royal Collections.

Martin Bailey at The Art Newspaper reports that Donnithorne has deemed the marking “the most convincing candidate for an authentic Leonardo fingerprint” he’s seen in the roughly 550 da Vinci drawings held by the Royal Collections.

Leonardo appeared to have made the reddish-brown marks while handling the page with inky fingers, impressing his left thumb on the front of the drawing and a smudge mark from his index finger on the reverse side.

Besides rediscovering the markings, the new analysis dives into Leonardo’s drawing technique and reveals that, unlike many artists of the day, he experimented with many paper types; some sheets of paper examined contained bits of straw and rope fibers, wool and even the occasional insect wing.

The thumbprint drawing will go on display for the first time at the National Museum Cardiff on February 1, as part of the celebrations commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. The drawings will later be exhibited in London and Edinburgh.

There may be another reason for keeping track of Leonardo’s fingerprints aside from getting closer to the long-dead genius. In 2009, a smudged fingerprint on the painting “La Bella Principessa” led some art historians to credit the work to Leonardo, though that attribution remains strongly disputed.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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