Portrait attributed to Leonardo in desperate condition

Possible self-portrait needs urgent treatment for mould and bacteria



A self-portrait believed to be by Leonardo da Vinci has undergone an initial examination at the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro e la Conservazione del Patrimonio Archivistico e Librario in Rome. The results will be presented at an international symposium due to take place at the institution from 25 to 26 June at which the best methods to conserve the drawing will be discussed. Academics have been calling for the work’s conservation since the 1970s.

The portrait, which belongs to the Royal Library in Turin and was included in the recent exhibition on Leonardo at the Venaria Reale (17 November 2011-19 February 2012), is displaying typical signs of “foxing”—age-related spots that can appear on old paper.

According to the director of the institute, Maria Cristina Misiti, the drawing was first damaged during a prolonged period of exposure to direct sunlight, one of the principal causes of damage to works on paper.

The biggest question relates to the sketch’s signature. Art historians from Britain and the US are less convinced by its authenticity, whereas Italian expert Carlo Pedretti is convinced it belongs to Leonardo.

Tests have shown that the paper is hand-made from flax, hemp and coloured wool, although it is not of the highest quality and lacks a watermark—the most accurate way to ascertain its date. “We can compare this paper with other samples from our archive—we have around 3,000 at the institute,” Misiti says. “Pedretti claims the paper is French. As for the signature, there is little we can do except for comparing it with the others we have, although it would certainly be easier if we could compare it with all the other works on paper by Leonardo.”

The drawing is dated between 1490 and 1515, while the sentence “self-portrait in his old age”, written on the lower margin, is dated between the end of the 18th century and the early19th century. The phrase has been attributed to Giuseppe Bosso, who sold the work to Giovanni Volpato, who carried out the first restoration.

The paper is extremely dirty and tests have confirmed the presence of bacteria and mould, which means that treatment is essential. Misiti is adamant that, after the exhibition and the journey to and from Rome, the work should remain in Turin for at least two years to avoid any more damage, although she says the treatment could and should start immediately.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Leonardo” sent for tests'