Monday, 13 June 2016

Looking For Leo

It’s been a good year for Leonardo da Vinci so far. Not only has he been the subject of many exhibitions, as he is every year, but several other bits of news have come out in the last two months.

The first news that filtered through was that a couple of historians in Italy had traced living descendants of Leonardo’s father. Leonardo himself had no children and thus had no direct descendants, but historians Alessandro Vezzosi and Agnese Sabato believe they have traced 15 generations of his family down to the present day.

The research began by looking through legal documents and written records from Leonardo’s time over 500 years ago. Vezzosi and Sabato went hunting around for family graves and tombs to try to fill in any gaps in the written record and provide clues for further research. In the end they came up with their 15 generation descent from Leonardo’s grandfather down to people who still live around Florence where Leo lived. Among the descendants is a policeman, a pastry chef, an accountant, a blacksmith, and an architect.

Not every Leonardo scholar has accepted this new research. They suggest that the paper trail Vezzoni and Sabato followed could have unnoticed errors. As a family historian I can see their point. Lots of records from 500 years ago are missing and I’ve had to reconstruct some of my own ancestry using probability based on the evidence of matching names, dates and places. Having said that I don’t doubt that some de Vinci family descendants walk among us (it’s certainly more believable than the infamous Holy Grail descendants invented by Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code”).

Perhaps DNA could help resolve the doubts. But that presents another problem. No-one knows what Leonardo’s DNA looks like, and its no good using any of the newly discovered descendants’ DNA until after they’ve found Leonardo’s.

The hunt for Leo’s DNA is another piece of news that emerged this Spring. The “Leonardo Project” is hoping to find traces of his DNA in his paintings. He is known to have used his fingers while painting as well as brushes – there are Leo’s fingerprints on some of his works. So perhaps there may be some microscopic skin cells embedded in the paint. This would have sounded very far-fetched a couple of decades ago, but today it seems that anything is possible – or at least attemptable.

If any DNA is found on the paintings it would also help to prove if the remains in Leonardo’s tomb actually belong to him. Although he was buried in the chapel of St. Florentin at the Chateau d’Amboise in France, the chapel was destroyed shortly after the French Revolution. The stone coffin that was discovered in 1863 and reburied in the Chateau’s St. Hubert chapel is only “presumed” to be Leonardo’s, despite the inscription on the coffin which reads “LEO DUS VINC”.

Only after DNA has been obtained from a painting and compared with that of Vinci descendants will church authorities allow the coffin be opened and DNA obtained from the remains. If all three samples of DNA show enough of a match then two questions will be answered at once – 1) are the remains really of Leonardo da Vinci, and 2) are there Vinci descendants living today.

The Leonardo Project team hopes that the research will be finished in time for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death in 2019.

Leonardo’s paintings are as much of a mystery as his DNA, especially the famous Mona Lisa. Many theories have been put forward as to the real identity of this enigmatic woman, not least of all being the unlikely idea that it is Leonardo’s self portrait.

Another theory that resurfaced this Spring was that the Mona Lisa may even be a portrait of Leonardo’s young boyfriend and apprentice, Gian Giacomo Caprotti. The theory has been around for about five years so why it re-emerged again this year is unclear. The theory was put forward by Silvano Vinceti, head of the National Committee for Cultural Heritage, a man who has set himself up as the Indiana Jones of the art world. Under his leadership the Committee has hunted down the “lost” remains of many artists, including Caravaggio’s and the Mona Lisa herself.

Vinceti studied many of Leonardo’s portraits and claimed that the Mona Lisa was, as generally accepted, that of Lisa Gherardini. What Vinceti then claimed was that the Mona Lisa is also a portrait of young Caprotti. He saw a lot of facial similarities in the Mona Lisa with known portraits of Caprotti, and in the portraits of others in Leonardo’s paintings for whom Caprotti posed as model.

Caprotti was a very androgynous looking youth and Leonardo used him as a model for both male and female characters in his paintings. Caprotti was the model for John the Baptist on a couple of occasions. Maybe he was also the model for the famous representation of John the Evangelist in “The Last Supper”, the figure often mistaken as a woman.

The reputation of Silvano Vinceti isn’t that great among some art historians and his theories are often disregarded. Whatever the truth behind the paintings and life of Leonardo de Vinci, Vinceti and the other researchers I’ve mentioned today can only enhance the mystery behind the world’s most famous painter.

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