A 'toxic secret' found in the analysis of da Vinci’s 'Mona Lisa' suggests that the polymath was way 'ahead of his time' in his painting techniques.
The Louvre Museum in Paris houses one of the most iconic paintings of the Renaissance period. Whether or not one is an art enthusiast, admirers from across the world who step on the French land, definitely make it a point to spend a few minutes in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s renowned chef-d'œuvre. The polymath is known for "Mona Lisa" but interestingly enough, he had a plethora of skills up his sleeves. He was not only a painter but also a draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor and architect. His miraculous mind worked way ahead of his time and this has been recently proven to be true by research conducted by scientists from France and the UK.
The scientists examined a small sample taken from a hidden corner of "Mona Lisa" and 17 other micro samples taken from "The Last Supper". They found something extraordinary in Da Vinci’s techniques. While it is a known fact that most of the paintings from the early 1500s had wooden panels and a thick layer of paint as the base of the canvas, the polymath was skilled in another technique that wasn’t noticed before in paintings from that time. Most painters used gesso for primer which is made from white dye, chalk and glue from animals, to help the paint stick onto the canvas faster.
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However, according to the Journal of the American Chemical Society, after meticulous analysis using X-ray diffraction and infrared spectroscopy, scientists have arrived at a surprising revelation. They found traces of plumbonacrite which is a rare and toxic compound created by causing a reaction between oil and lead. This means that Da Vinci was using lead white pigment and blended his oil paints with lead oxide, which wasn’t a trick applied to paintings until the 1600s by Rembrandt. This was a method used to help the paint dry quicker despite the ill effects of lead exposure on one's health.
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One of the authors of the paper, Professor Gilles Wallez of Sorbonne University in Paris, spoke to CNN and said, “Everything which comes from Leonardo is very interesting because he was an artist, of course, but he was also a chemist, a physicist — he had lots of ideas, and he was an experimenter… attempting to improve the knowledge of his time. Each time you discover something on his processes, you discover that he was clearly ahead of his time.” The Louvre Museum’s priceless possession was painted on a wooden panel with a thick base layer, according to Wallez. As per the researchers, da Vinci created a mixture of lead oxide powder with linseed oil which resulted in a thick coat of paint for the base layer and that ultimately led to the fabrication of this rare compound.
This new revelation is a thought-provoking addition to the study of the "Mona Lisa" and also to Leonardo da Vinci’s life story. The world of art and history are intertwined so much so that even after 500 years, there are new discoveries that throw light on how advanced the world was back then.