Researchers Uncover Another Layer of Mystery Behind Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’

by Michael Nguyen
Renaissance Art Techniques

The enigmatic “Mona Lisa” has revealed yet another of its secrets.

By employing X-ray analysis to examine the molecular composition of a minuscule fragment of the iconic painting, researchers have garnered fresh understanding into the methodologies Leonardo da Vinci utilized to craft his seminal portrait of a woman whose smile remains beguilingly elusive.

The findings, disclosed this Wednesday in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, indicate that Leonardo da Vinci—the inquisitive, multi-talented master of the Italian Renaissance—might have been in an unusually exploratory phase when he embarked on creating the “Mona Lisa” in the early 1500s.

The formula for the oil paint that Leonardo applied as an initial layer on the poplar wood panel seems unique to the “Mona Lisa,” distinguished by its own characteristic chemical profile, as deduced by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and art historians from France and the United Kingdom.

Victor Gonzalez, the principal investigator of the study and a chemist at France’s foremost research institution, the CNRS, who has extensively examined the chemical elements in numerous artworks by Leonardo and other masters like Rembrandt, commented, “Leonardo was inherently experimental, and each of his artworks varies significantly in technique.”

“In this instance, it is remarkable to observe that the ‘Mona Lisa’ does indeed employ a unique technique for its foundational layer,” Gonzalez shared in a dialogue with The Big Big News.

Particularly intriguing was the discovery of a scarce compound, plumbonacrite, in Leonardo’s preliminary layer of paint. This finding corroborates, for the first time empirically, what art historians have speculated for years—that Leonardo likely employed lead oxide powder to both thicken and expedite the drying process of his paint as he initiated the portrait, now securely housed behind a protective glass enclosure in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Carmen Bambach, a renowned expert in Italian art and a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who was not affiliated with this research, characterized the discovery as “highly stimulating,” emphasizing that any scientifically verified new insights into Leonardo’s artistic processes are “of paramount significance for both the art community and society at large.”

The presence of plumbonacrite in the “Mona Lisa,” Bambach stated via email, “attests to Leonardo’s relentless and perpetual inclination for experimentation in his role as a painter—this is what makes him perennially modern.”

The segment of paint subjected to analysis, inconspicuous to the unaided eye and no larger than a human hair, was procured from the upper right corner of the painting. Advanced X-ray techniques in a synchrotron— a large apparatus that propels particles near the speed of light—enabled the scientists to decode the fragment’s chemical constituents. Plumbonacrite, a derivative of lead oxide, further solidified the notion that Leonardo most likely incorporated the substance in his painting formulation.

Gonzalez noted, “The presence of plumbonacrite serves as a chemical fingerprint of Leonardo’s particular recipe. It marks the first occasion on which we can substantiate it chemically.”

Subsequent to Leonardo, the Dutch luminary Rembrandt may have utilized an analogous mixture in his 17th-century works, as plumbonacrite has also been identified in his creations.

“This underscores the longevity and efficacy of such formulas, which have been transmitted through generations,” added Gonzalez.

It is surmised that Leonardo combined lead oxide powder, characterized by its orange hue, with either linseed or walnut oil, heating the blend to yield a thicker, faster-drying substance.

“The resultant oil bears a strikingly rich golden shade and possesses a viscosity akin to that of honey,” explained Gonzalez.

However, the “Mona Lisa,” purportedly a depiction of Lisa Gherardini, the spouse of a Florentine silk merchant, and other Leonardo da Vinci creations continue to guard additional mysteries.

“We have merely scratched the surface. There remains an expansive realm of knowledge yet to be explored,” concluded Gonzalez. “Our findings represent but a single additional brick in the edifice of understanding.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Renaissance Art Techniques

What did the X-ray analysis reveal about the “Mona Lisa”?

The X-ray analysis revealed a unique painting technique used by Leonardo da Vinci in the “Mona Lisa.” Specifically, it identified the presence of a rare compound called plumbonacrite in the first layer of paint. This discovery confirmed that Leonardo likely incorporated lead oxide powder into his paint, a technique that had been previously hypothesized by art historians.

Why is the discovery of plumbonacrite significant?

The presence of plumbonacrite in the “Mona Lisa” is significant because it provides concrete evidence of the materials and techniques Leonardo da Vinci used in his artwork. It verifies that he employed lead oxide powder to thicken and expedite the drying of his paint, shedding light on his innovative approach to painting.

How was the paint fragment analyzed?

The paint fragment from the “Mona Lisa” was analyzed using advanced X-ray techniques in a synchrotron, a machine that accelerates particles to nearly the speed of light. This allowed scientists to examine the fragment’s atomic structure and identify the presence of plumbonacrite, which served as a chemical fingerprint of Leonardo’s unique recipe.

What does this discovery reveal about Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic methods?

This discovery highlights Leonardo da Vinci’s experimental nature as an artist. It shows that he was willing to explore and employ distinct techniques for different paintings. The use of plumbonacrite in the “Mona Lisa” adds to our understanding of his artistic processes and his constant pursuit of innovation.

Are there more secrets to uncover in Leonardo’s artwork?

Yes, there are likely more secrets to uncover in Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork. The research team emphasized that they have only scratched the surface of their exploration. Leonardo’s diverse body of work offers ample opportunities for further discoveries and insights into his artistic genius.

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HistoryBuff42 October 14, 2023 - 2:10 pm

X-ray findin’ in Mona Lisa, amazin’ insight, Leonardo was a genius.

ArtEnthusiast October 14, 2023 - 4:24 pm

Da Vinci, a true artist, always experimentin’, wow factor!

ArtLover86 October 14, 2023 - 5:42 pm

cool stuff, lerned abt da Vinci’s paintin secrets, wow!

CuriousMind October 15, 2023 - 7:51 am

Need more secrets from Leo’s art, dig deeper into history!

ScienceNerd123 October 15, 2023 - 8:40 am

Lead oxide powder, who knew? Sciencific discovery rocks!


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