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Leonardo da Vinci used poisonous pigments when he painted the Mona Lisa


detail from the Mona Lisa showing head and shoulders
Enlarge / A tiny fleck of paint, taken from the Mona Lisa, is revealing insights into beforehand unknown steps of Leonardo da Vinci’s course of.

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When Leonardo da Vinci was creating his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, he could have experimented with lead oxide in his base layer, leading to hint quantities of a compound referred to as plumbonacrite. It types when lead oxides mix with oil, a typical combination to assist paint dry, utilized by later artists like Rembrandt. However the presence of plumbonacrite within the Mona Lisa is the primary time the compound has been detected in an Italian Renaissance portray, suggesting that da Vinci may have pioneered this system, based on the authors of a current paper printed within the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Fewer than 20 of da Vinci’s work have survived, and the Mona Lisa is by far essentially the most well-known, inspiring a Nineteen Fifties hit track by Nat King Cole and that includes prominently in final 12 months’s Glass Onion: a Knives Out Thriller, amongst different popular culture mentions. The portray is in remarkably good situation given its age, however artwork conservationists and da Vinci students alike are desirous to be taught as a lot as doable in regards to the supplies the Renaissance grasp used to create his works.

There have been some current scientific investigations of da Vinci’s works, which revealed that he various the supplies used for his work, particularly in regards to the floor layers utilized between the wood panel floor and the next paint layers. As an illustration, for his Virgin and Little one with St. Anne (c. 1503–1519), he used a typical Italian Renaissance gesso for the bottom layer, adopted by a lead white priming layer. However for La Belle Ferronniere (c. 1495–1497), da Vinci used an oil-based floor layer manufactured from white and crimson lead.

For his giant wall portray, The Final Supper—his second most well-known work—he used an oil-based lead white priming layer moderately than the standard fresco approach. As for the Mona Lisa, numerous X-ray analyses of the portray confirmed the presence of heavy components throughout the poplar wooden panel, which may imply that da Vinci used a lead-based pigment or an oil medium handled with lead through the grinding. The bottom layer seems to be a single layer of lead white with no gesso.

(a) The <em>Mona Lisa</em>. (b) X-ray radiography revealing a radio-opaque, thick absorbing paint layer under the painting surface. Copyright E. Ravaud. (c) Pb-Lα MA-XRF map.
Enlarge / (a) The Mona Lisa. (b) X-ray radiography revealing a radio-opaque, thick absorbing paint layer underneath the portray floor. Copyright E. Ravaud. (c) Pb-Lα MA-XRF map.

V. Gonzalez et al., 2023

In different phrases, da Vinci was continuously experimenting along with his inventive supplies. “From 1485 to 1490, every recognized easel portray of Leonardo presents a special sort of floor layer,” Victor Gonzalez of Universite Paris-Salcay and his co-authors wrote of their paper. “Their solely widespread options are that they’re oil-based and that they include the lead white pigment referred to as biacca by Leonardo in his writings.”

Gonzalez et al. determined to take a better have a look at the Mona Lisa‘s floor layer with X-ray diffraction and infrared spectroscopy, analyzing a tiny microsample taken from a hidden nook of the portray again in 2007. They had been stunned to seek out plumbonacrite within the combine along with lead white and oil because the compound has beforehand been detected solely in later work. These embrace a portray fragment by Vincent van Gogh—probably on account of the degradation of a crimson lead pigment because of publicity to mild—and within the thick lead white impasto utilized by Rembrandt in a number of of his work, most notably The Evening Watch.

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