Whale Wax Helps Scholars Solve Mystery of Supposed Leonardo da Vinci Sculpture

Radiocarbon dating places the bust’s creation centuries after the Renaissance artist’s death in 1519

Flora bust in front of red background
A new analysis dates the wax bust's creation to the 19th century—some 300 years after Leonardo's death in 1519. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Art historians have long debated whether Leonardo da Vinci created a sculpture of Flora, Roman goddess of flowering plants, housed in the collections of Berlin’s Bode Museum. Now, reports Vincent Noce for the Art Newspaper, evidence presented by a trio of researchers proves that the Renaissance giant couldn’t have made the work.

As detailed in the journal Scientific Reports, the team used radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis to pinpoint the work’s creation to the 19th century—some 300 years after Leonardo’s death in 1519. This timing lines up with statements made by painter Albert Durer Lucas, who claimed to have helped his father, British sculptor Richard Cockle Lucas, craft the likeness back in the 1840s.

The study, according to a press release, “provided both a precise date and an incontrovertible result.”

When the researchers analyzed samples taken from the bust, they determined that it was composed of spermaceti—a waxy material found in the heads of sperm whales and bottlenose whales—and beeswax. Per Mindy Weisberger of Live Science, spermaceti was rarely used by Renaissance artists but had become increasingly commonplace by the 18th century. At the time, noted Cosmos’ Martin Harris in 2014, the wax was used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, industrial lubricants and candles.

The sculpture’s blend of terrestrial and marine sources complicated the dating process, as “carbon consumed by the organisms in deep and shallow seawater is older than that consumed on land,” write the authors in the study.

The scholars add, “To further complicate the procedure, the location of the marine source”—in this instance, the whale that provided the spermaceti—“must be known to accurately calibrate marine material.”

To overcome these obstacles, the team developed an entirely new calibration method that took into account the amount of spermaceti versus beeswax present in the Flora bust. Per the Art Newspaper, the analysis yielded a date range of 1704 to 1950.

A Picture of the Bust
The findings support the sculpture's attribution to British artist Richard Cockle Lucas. © SMB-SPK

Wilhelm von Bode, founding director of the Bode Museum (then known as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum), acquired the 28-inch tall, 62-pound sculpture in 1909. As the Italian newspaper Leggo reports, Bode was convinced that Flora’s “enigmatic smile,” graceful posture and precise draping could only be the work of Leonardo.

According to the museum’s website, Bode’s claim sparked an “unprecedented” art world scandal, with scholars across Europe writing more than 700 articles alternatively supporting or disavowing the Leonardo attribution over the next two years.

Bode and his followers argued that Leonardo was known for using unexpected materials, including wax, in novel ways, notes the Art Newspaper. But detractors—like former museum director Gustav Pauli—pointed out that scholars knew of no other Renaissance sculptures made out of wax. Instead, Pauli attributed Flora to Lucas, who often crafted ivory, marble and wax works modeled on ancient statues.

Lucas, writes historian Harry Willis Fleming on the Richard Cockle Lucas Project’s website, was an “intriguing creative figure” whose multidisciplinary art melded “print-making, stained glass, photography, performance, building, archaeology, collecting and writing.” His oeuvre included performative self-portraits, wax scale models of the Parthenon, and a “book monument” made up of 50 autobiographical albums and scrapbooks.

In 1910, Lucas’ son claimed that his father had sculpted the bust. The younger Lucas presented a watercolor painting of the work and explained that he’d helped his father stuff it with newspapers and wood chips. Though experts who later examined the sculpture found these exact materials inside, Bode and proponents of the Leonardo attribution maintained that the items dated to a modern restoration.

Now, after more than a century of heated debate, scientists have “proven [Bode] wrong once and for all,” according to the statement. As Nick Squires reports for the Telegraph, the team also compared samples from the Flora bust to Lucas’ 1850 sculpture Leda and the Swan. The two artworks had “very similar wax features,” per the study, offering additional evidence for the argument that Lucas—not Leonardo—created the famed statue.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.