Leonardo da Vinci

The Art Newspaper's exclusive insight into the new Universal Leonardo Project

Oxford professor launches detailed technical study of all works attributed to Leonardo to be completed by major exhibitions in 2006

The Universal Leonardo Project is being set up to coordinate the first scientific examination of all the artist’s paintings. Despite Leonardo da Vinci’s small œuvre, most of the pictures have never been properly examined with modern equipment. “Even the Mona Lisa has not been subjected to a sustained technical examination,” explains Professor Martin Kemp, the Oxford-based art historian who is leading the project. Along with the scientific investigations, a series of Leonardo exhibitions is being scheduled for venues across Europe in 2006.

Although the Universal Leonardo Project is still at an early stage, initial backing has come from a wealthy American business tycoon with an interest in the arts. The plan is to set up a London office in May, at Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, where Professor Kemp’s colleague Marina Wallace is based. It is hoped that the Council of Europe will shortly agree to back the project, providing both funding and its imprimatur on the international venture. Although there are some similarities with the Amsterdam-based Rembrandt Research Project, it is very unusual for there to be a truly international effort to examine an individual artist’s œuvre on a systematic basis. The Art Newspaper reports exclusively on this important new initiative.

Scholars are still unable to agree on which paintings should be attributed to Leonardo, with the number accepted by individual specialists varying from one dozen to two dozen (including unfinished works and those done in collaboration with other artists). Professor Kemp has 22 on his list, but others take a more restrictive position. For instance, Carmen Bambach, curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s current Leonardo exhibition, puts the number at just 15.

Among the major paintings where the involvement of Leonardo is questioned are “La belle Ferronière” (Louvre), the “Litta Madonna” (Hermitage) and the “Virgin of the rocks” (National Gallery). Other pictures accepted by some respected scholars but excluded from Kemp’s list include “Head of a girl” (Galleria Nazionale, Parma), “Tobias and the Angel” and “Madonna and Child with a pomegranate” (with Verrocchio) (both National Gallery of Art, Washington).


The aim of the Universal Leonardo Project is not primarily to focus on attribution, but more importantly to examine the artist’s technique. The major tool is infra-red reflectography, which makes it possible to see the underdrawing. Modern scanning devices also allow an examination of paint layers, which would determine how far Leonardo painted on a white lead layer. It would also be particularly important to examine the two versions of the “Virgin of the rocks”, those at the Louvre and the National Gallery, since some art historians see the work of assistants in the London picture.

Another lead which will be pursued is an investigation of fingerprints, which have been recently found on several Leonardo paintings. These include “St Jerome” (Vatican), “Virgin of the rocks” (National Gallery), “Ginevra de’ Benci” (National Gallery of Art) and “Lady with the ermine” (Czartoryski Museum). One theory is that Leonardo may have achieved some of his sfumato effect by using his fingers and hand on the wet paint.

Florence’s restoration laboratory, the Opifico delle Pietre Dure in Florence (under Dr Cristina Acidini), is willing to run the scientific tests. Professor Kemp’s principle is not to move the paintings unless necessary. “The best solution is to move the equipment and the specialists, to examine each of the works in situ,” he explained. Nevertheless, it will require considerable diplomacy to secure the agreement of all the galleries. In particular, the Louvre, with its important group of Leonardos, needs to be won over.

So far the Leonardo Universal Project has no formal scholarly board, but most of the key players have already voiced their approval, according to Professor Kemp. These include Carmen Bambach (Metropolitan Museum), David Alan Brown (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), Martin Clayton and Lady Jane Roberts (Royal Collection), Lorenza dall’Aglio (Soprintendente, Milan), Claire Farago (University of Colorado), Paolo Galluzzi (Museum of the History of Science, Florence), Pietro Marani (coordinator of the restoration of “The Last Supper”), Professor Antonio Paolucci (Soprintendente, Florence), Dr Jean-Pierre Mohen (Musées de France), Maurizio Seracini (Florentine specialist on scientific examination) and Anna Maria Petrioli Tofani (Uffizi). Professor Carlo Pedretti, from the University of California, has also expressed his sympathy with the project.


Professor Kemp hopes that scientific examination of the works will be completed in time for a major series of exhibitions in 2006. Although negotiations will no doubt be lengthy, once the equipment and the specialists are in place, the investigation of a painting should only take a few days. Detailed analysis of the results can then be conducted over the following months, and the results ought to be ready for publication in 2006. Rather than attempting to bring the paintings together for a spectacular blockbuster, which would be virtually impossible, the idea is decentralisation—with a series of exhibitions and displays at European and North American venues, with Britain and Italy taking the lead.

In London, the Victoria and Albert Museum is planning an exhibition on “Leonardo: Imagination, Experiment and Design”, to examine how the artist used paper as a vehicle for his thoughts. The V&A has the Forster Codices, but it hopes for generous loans from the Royal Collection, the British Museum and the British Library. The show will also include modern models based on Leonardo’s engineering drawings.

The other main UK event will be “The Oxford dimension”, a series of displays at four venues in the university town. The Ashmolean Museum and Christ Church College both have important groups of Leonardo drawings, plus a few Leonardesque paintings. Magdalene College’s chapel houses the best of the early full-scale copies of the “Last Supper”, on loan from the Royal Academy. The Museum of the History of Science has a notable collection of Renaissance instruments.

The two main Italian cities where Leonardo worked have also agreed to hold exhibitions. The major Milan show will focus on Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses “The Last Supper”, as a centre of patronage. There are also likely to be displays on the “Treatise on painting” in the Castello Sforzesco and one to publicise the results of the cleaning of “The Last Supper” fresco at Santa Maria delle Grazie.

In Florence, the Museum of the History of Science will explore how Leonardo visualised the phenomena of science. There will be a major exhibition on Leonardo and the city at either the Palazzo Strozzi or the Uffizi. Maurizio Seracini will continue to use ultra-sound to investigate the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, in which the lost “Battle of Anghiari” may survive under later murals.

In addition, it is hoped that the results of the scientific analysis on individual paintings will be displayed at the galleries in Cracow, Munich, Paris, St Petersburg, the Vatican and Washington. However, Professor Kemp stresses that the Universal Leonardo Project is at a formative stage, and detailed discussions are continuing with the galleries which own the paintings and the venues where exhibitions will be staged. The project should answer a few more of the questions surrounding the greatest artist of the Renaissance.

Current Leonardo shows

o “Leonardo da Vinci: Master draftsman”, curated by Carmen Bambach, is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York until 30 March. It represents one of the largest ever displays of Leonardo drawings (120 works), plus the painting St Jerome (Vatican) and drawings by his teacher Verrocchio and others. The extremely detailed catalogue runs to 786 pages.

o “Leonard de Vinci: Dessins et manuscripts” is at the Louvre, 9 May-14 July. This is described as complementary to the Metropolitan show. It will present 88 drawings and a dozen manuscripts.

o “Leonardo da Vinci: The divine and the grotesque”, with 70 drawings from the Royal Collection, is at The Queen’s Gallery at Holyroodhouse until 30 March and then at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, from 9 May to 9 November.

o A new publication should be noted: Leonardo da Vinci by Professor Frank Zöllner and Johannes Nathan. Taschen, the publishers, promise that it will be the most thorough and sumptuous book ever on the artist.

Leonardo’s œuvre: the Kemp list

Adoration of the Magi Uffizi, Florence (unfinished)

Annunciation Uffizi, Florence

Bacchus Louvre, Paris (possibly begun by Leonardo)

Baptism Uffizi, Florence (contribution to Verrocchio picture)

Benois Madonna Hermitage, St Petersburg

Ginevra de Benci National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

La belle Ferronière Louvre, Paris

Lady with the Ermine Czartoryski Museum, Crackow

Last Supper Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan (fresco)

Litta Madonna Hermitage, St Petersburg (with pupils)

Madonna with a carnation Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Madonna of the yarnwinder Drumlanrig Castle

(with pupils)

Madonna of the yarnwinder private collection (with pupils)

Mona Lisa Louvre, Paris

Musician Ambrosiana, Milan

Portrait of lady Ambrosiana, Milan (possible)

Sala delle Asse Castello Sforzesco, Milan

(fresco, much damaged)

St Jerome Vatican (unfinished)

St John the Baptist Louvre, Paris

Virgin of the rocks Louvre, Paris

Virgin of the rocks National Gallery, London

Virgin, Child and St Anne Louvre, Parise Renaissance.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The thumb print of the master?'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 134 March 2003