Leonardo da Vinci

Now you see it, now you don’t: restorers wash Leonardo drawing away

Catastrophe strikes as restorers use routine conservation method

A recently rediscovered drawing by Leonardo da Vinci has been destroyed by restorers attempting to clean it. Leonardo’s delicate inkwork was erased when restorers submerged the drawing in a solution of alcohol and distilled water, a common restoration intervention. The drawing, of Orpheus being attacked by the Furies, was recently identified by Carlo Pedretti, a Leonardo expert. He saw the piece in a drawings collection of Stefano della Bella and recognised it as a fragment from a larger sheet, originally in the Atlantic Codex, illustrating scenes from Poliziano’s poem Orpheus. In an article in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Professor Pedretti expressed his amazement that restorers had not carried out tests before submerging the picture, particularly given the delicate nature of the vegetable inks Leonardo had used. He cited two other recent cases where damage has been done to Leonardo drawings by botched cleaning efforts. There is still a possibility that the image can be retrieved using chemical or even nuclear techniques, but the result will be a technical reproduction rather than the work of Leonardo. When it comes to restoration, warns Professor Pedretti, there is no such thing as a routine job—especially when dealing with a Leonardo.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 120 December 2001