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Hidden details in drawings by Leonardo da Vinci revealed for the first time

Release date: Monday, 28 January 2019

Detail of work showing thumbprint ©

Hidden details in drawings by Leonardo da Vinci will be revealed for the first time in a groundbreaking new book, Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look, published on 1 February. Focussing on 80 of Leonardo’s finest drawings from the unrivalled holdings of the Royal Collection, the book sheds fresh light on the artist’s drawing methods, tools and materials. The findings are from 20 years of scientific research by Alan Donnithorne, former Head of Paper Conservation, Royal Collection Trust. He examines the material aspects of Leonardo’s work in unprecedented detail using a range of techniques, including microscopy, ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence (XRF).

The book’s remarkable photography shows both tangible evidence of Leonardo’s way of working, much of it invisible to the naked eye, and physical traces of the artist’s hand. One of the most evocative of these is Leonardo’s thumbprint on the drawing The cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman, c.1509–10 (at the National Museum Cardiff, then at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace). At the centre of the sheet’s left edge, the print is in the same reddish-brown ink as the ink lines of the drawing. It can only be concluded that, after creating the work, the left-handed Leonardo picked up the sheet with inky fingers.


Close up of work showing insect parts and wool fibres ©

Alan Donnithorne explains that Leonardo’s use of a wide range of paper types was unusual for the time and further indication of the artist’s experimental way of working. Examination of The head of an old bearded man in profile, c.1519 (at Southampton City Art Gallery, then at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace) reveals that the paper is full of miscellaneous fibres, including straw and fragments of rope, and that the original papermaker had repaired the sheet. The paper of A sketch of the viscera, c.1515–16, contains fragments of wood chips, hair, wool and insect parts, possibly sweepings from the mill floor.

The publication of Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look coincides with the opening on 1 February of 12 simultaneous UK exhibitions of Leonardo’s drawings from the Royal Collection to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, followed by exhibitions at The Queen’s Galleries in London in May and Edinburgh in November. Collectively, these exhibitions offer the widest-ever UK audience the opportunity to see Leonardo’s work and to engage directly with one of the greatest minds in history.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look by Alan Donnithorne is published by Royal Collection Trust on 1 February 2019, £29.95 from Royal Collection Trust shops and