Was Leonardo da Vinci, a Famous Lefty, Actually Ambidextrous?
A study finds that one inscription on an early Leonardo drawing was penned with the artist’s left hand, while another was written with his right
Leonardo da Vinci is one of history’s most famous lefties. He was known by his contemporaries as “mancino”—Italian slang for a left-handed person—and experts today use signs of left-handedness to authenticate the artist’s work, particularly his drawings. But according to Sarah Cascone of Artnet News, an investigation into one of Leonardo’s early landscape drawings suggests that the artist was in fact ambidextrous.
Carried out by Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Opificio delle Pietre Dure, an art conservation and scientific research institute, the new study focused a 1473 landscape depicting the Arno river valley and Montelupo Castle, drawn when the artist was just 21. Often referred to as “Landscape 8P,” the front of the drawing features the date penned in Leonardo’s famed “mirror writing”—that is, written from right to left. It’s not clear why the artist used this script, but one theory posits that it helped him refrain from smudging ink as he wrote with his left hand. Yet on the back of “Landscape 8P” is a note—possibly a contract—written out in standard left to right script, which Uffizi experts say was rendered with the artist’s right hand.
“From an observation of his handwriting, including the inscriptions on this drawing, it is clear that his writing as a right-hander was both cultivated and well formed,” said art historian and study supervisor Cecilia Frosinini, according to the Agence France-Presse.
This isn’t the first time that scholars have pointed to the Arno valley landscape as a possible indicator of Leonardo’s ambidexterity. In the catalogue for a 2003 Leonardo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carmen Bambach writes that the obverse side of the drawing “is inscribed at the top in what appears to be an attractive calligraphic hand with a conventional, though somewhat strained, left-to-right-script that may also possibly be by the young Leonardo.”
But the Uffizi researchers say they are confident that both inscriptions were penned by the artist. For one, their analysis suggests that the ink used for both inscriptions was also used to draw most of the landscape, the gallery said in a statement. They also studied “typical features” of Leonardo’s known writing found on various documents, leading the team to conclude that “[b]oth forms of writing, while displaying a certain number of differences due to the use of different hands, share numerous key features that unquestionably display Leonardo's unique style.”
The investigation yielded additional stunning discoveries. According to Cascone, when experts examined Landscape 8P under infrared light, they detected an underlying sketch on the front of the drawing, suggesting that it was executed in two distinct phases. Another two layers of sketches were revealed on the back, “where two landscapes are superimposed one upon the other and are totally different from the landscape on the front,” the Uffizi says in its statement. This previously hidden scene, which depicts a stream and two banks connected by a bridge, was drawn in charcoal, and Leonardo appears to have started highlighting certain features in ink. It’s not clear if the artist deliberately erased the drawing, or if it simply faded over time, Reuters reports.
The researchers were also able to see that Leonardo had used a stylus to make an initial sketch of his drawing; the implement “made a grey mark on the sheet,” the Uffizi explains, which the artist then relied on “to trace the ‘base’ or outline sketch for the whole drawing.”
With these new revelations, scholars have gained detailed insight into the creative process that fueled "Landscape 8P"—from the materials Leonardo employed, to the phases in which he executed the drawing, to the hands (both left and right) that he may have used to inscribe his work.