Is This Painted Tile Da Vinci’s Earliest Known Work?

Two Italian scholars believe the tile was painted by the Renaissance master in 1471, but other experts are not convinced

Archangel Gabriel
Archangel Gabriel ANSA via AP

At a press conference in Rome last week, two scholars unveiled a small, painted tile of a rosy-cheeked, curly-haired Archangel Gabriel. The scholars—art historian Ernesto Solari and handwriting expert Ivana Rosa Bonfantino—also revealed that they had discovered tiny signature scrawled along Gabriel’s jawline. It read “Da Vinci Lionardo.”

As Valentina DiDonato reports for CNN, Solari and Bonfantino believe that the tile constitutes the earliest known work by the Renaissance master. But one leading da Vinci expert is raising doubts about the painting’s authenticity.

The tile is a type of glazed earthenware known as “majolica,” a popular style of pottery in 15th-century Italy. The work belongs to the descendants of the Fenices, an aristocratic family from Ravello, Italy; Solari explained during the press conference that members of the family discovered the tile “when cleaning out the house,” but they did not know anything about the work’s origins.

“Thankfully they realized it was something that shone a bit brighter than the other things they found,” Solari added, according to DiDonato.

Once they were alerted to the discovery, Solari and Bonfantino spent three years researching the tile and subjecting it to scientific tests. According to Nick Squires of the Telegraph, infrared analysis of the relic revealed that an apparent date, 1471, had been written next to the signature. Thermoluminescence dating of the tile confirmed that it was, in fact, created in the 15th century.

The minuscule inscription along Gabriel’s jaw can no longer be seen with the naked eye, but the researchers think it may have been visible when the tile was first painted. It is possible, they theorize, that the lettering become smudged and illegible when the tile was baked in a furnace.

Bonfantino compared the inscription to other known samples of da Vinci’s handwriting and noticed, among other things, that the “1” in 1471 was shorter than the other numbers, which was reportedly typical of da Vinci’s writing style.

“My conclusion is that the writing on the face of the Archangel was done by a young Leonardo,” she said, according to Squires.

There are other intriguing indicators. The signature was penned in mirror writing, just like the backwards script that fills the artist’s notebooks. Frieze Magazine reports that researchers also discovered two numbers—52 and 72—next to the presumed date of 1471. Solari believes 52 refers to 1452, the year of Leonardo’s birth. The numbers 7 and 2, he argues, correspond to the positions of G and B in the alphabet—an allusion to Gabriel, the painting’s subject.

“More than a signature, it is typical of the famous puzzles that [da Vinci] loved all his life,” he said, according to Frieze.

If the scholars’ interpretation of the inscription is correct, the tile was painted by da Vinci when he was just 18 years old. “It is the earliest known signature by Leonardo,” Solari tells Squires. “And we think the painting of the Archangel was with great probability a self-portrait of Leonardo – Gabriel was like a rock star at that time and people wanted to be associated with him.”

But not all experts are convinced by Solari and Bonfantino’s analysis. Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University and a prominent da Vinci scholar, tells Maev Kennedy of the Guardian that “the chance of [the tile] being by Leonardo is less than zero.”

For Kemp, the rendering of Gabriel’s curled locks is a major red flag; in an interview with Squires of the Telegraph, he quips that the archangel’s hair “looks like vermicelli.” The caliber of the painted tile, he adds, does not align with the sophistication of the “Annunciation,” which was painted by da Vinci in 1472 or 1473 and is widely accepted as his earliest known work.

“The quality is not what you would expect from something that was supposedly painted just a year before the Annunciation,” Kemp says of the tile.

Solari, for his part, says he welcomes scholarly discussion about the newly revealed tile.

"Today we open the debate,” he said at the press conference, according to La Repubblica.

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