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Scientific analysis of Leonardo's drawings

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The head of an old bearded man in profile c.1519

Black chalk on rough paper | 25.3 x 18.2 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 912500

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A drawing of the head of an old man, bald, with a hooked nose and a flowing beard, turned in profile to the left.

This is one Leonardo’s very last drawings. It is drawn on rough, low-quality paper, and though its mealy surface contributes to the broken nature of the chalk lines, they are clearly shorter and more hesitant than in previous drawings, suggesting that Leonardo was no longer fully in control of his chalk. An old bearded man drawing an old bearded man cannot have been oblivious to an element of self-portraiture, even self-caricature, but there is nothing comic about the image. The lank hair, rheumy eyes, peg-like teeth and pendulous nose surely express Leonardo’s feelings about his own decay. When Cardinal Luigi of Aragon visited Leonardo in France in October 1517, his secretary Antonio de Beatis reported that Leonardo was more than seventy years old (he was actually sixty-six, though exaggeration of age was common at that time) and that 'a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand'. Leonardo would live for another eighteen months, and it seems that his last years were marked by a slow decline of health. This is not a literal self-portrait, but it must be regarded on a profound level as a self-image, an exploration of Leonardo’s perception of himself, both noble and pathetic, as he approached death.

Text adapted from M. Clayton, Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing, London, 2018