Purchasing new hardware? Read our latest product comparisons

Nanoscale research may help preserve Leonardo da Vinci’s vanishing portrait


June 4, 2014

Detail of da Vinci's famous self-portrait, which is rapidly deteriorating from the effects of years of exposure to pollution, light, and heat

Detail of da Vinci's famous self-portrait, which is rapidly deteriorating from the effects of years of exposure to pollution, light, and heat

A famous red chalk on paper drawing, widely accepted as a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, is rapidly deteriorating from the effects of years of exposure to pollution, light, and heat. Worst of all, many centuries in unregulated and humid storage has led to extensive yellowing and browning of the paper. Recently, however, researchers from Italy and Poland have developed a new non-destructive, nano-level method to identify the root causes of the degradation and assist in planning appropriate conservation strategies.

In an extraordinary concession by Turin's Royal Library, the da Vinci picture was made available for diagnostic investigations at the Central Institute for the Restoration of Archival and Library Heritage in Rome, Italy. Concentrating on areas across a range of degradation levels, the team conducted a spectral analysis on the paper to offer a deeper insight into the chemical changes seen at the molecular level and to ascertain the concentration of light-absorbing molecules known as chromophores.

Ordinarily, in a living plant, chromophores act as part of the energy transfer chain in photosynthesis. But when plant material is turned into paper, the chromophores become responsible for the yellowing effect on the cellulose contained in that paper. That is, chromophores in cellulose absorb visible light in the higher energy range of violet and blue, and so largely scatter the yellow and red portion, thereby generating the yellow-brown hue characteristic of old paper.

The results definitively showed that humidity and oxygen have produced volatile chemicals responsible for the paper’s degradation, as well as the promotion of the effects of the chromophores in discoloring the portrait. It is envisaged that a continued repetition of this analysis will not only offer an ongoing, measurable assessment of the rate the degradation is occurring, but also increase the understanding of the degradation processes themselves. Such information should prove invaluable to restorers and conservators in their on-going efforts to maintain and preserve such rare works of art.

The results were published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

About the Author
Colin Jeffrey Colin discovered technology at an early age, pulling apart clocks, radios, and the family TV. Despite his father's remonstrations that he never put anything back together, Colin went on to become an electronics engineer. Later he decided to get a degree in anthropology, and used that to do all manner of interesting things masquerading as work. Even later he took up sculpting, moved to the coast, and never learned to surf. All articles by Colin Jeffrey

The other option is to hire a talented artist to touch it up: http://i.imgur.com/Jv11aKy.jpg


In an early drawing class I chose to replicate this Old Master drawing. I used sanguine... blood or pigs blood as in the Imperial palace.. that dusty red color commonly used by artists through the centuries.

Red Chalk? really?

So what is the current fashion? Try and make it look what would be imagined as brand new?

Protect and preserve it but do not destroy it.


Island Architect
Post a Comment

Login with your Gizmag account:

Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our articles