Artist Leonardo da Vinci is known for his unusual painting techniques and materials. To this day, we continue to make new discoveries about his work, and the most recent revelation concerns a mix of toxic pigments hidden beneath the brushwork of the ‘Mona Lisa’.
Researchers from France and the United Kingdom have examined a tiny microscopic sample taken from a hidden corner of the ‘Mona Lisa’. They used various imaging techniques, using both X-rays and infrared light to identify the substances used.
The research team discovered not only oil and white lead, as they expected, but also a rare substance called plumbonacrite (Pb5(CO3)3O(OH)2. Plumbonacrite is formed when oil reacts with lead(II) oxide (or PbO). This indicates that Leonardo da Vinci most likely used lead(II) oxide in his paintings.
The same PbO compound was found in several microscopic samples taken from the surface of ‘The Last Supper’, another famous painting by da Vinci. However, the only references to PbO in the Italian artist’s writings were related to remedies for the skin and hair. Although not mentioned in his writings, it appears that da Vinci used lead(II) oxide as a base coat. This is something that has been hypothesized before, but now the researchers have more direct evidence for it.
Rembrandt used similar technique
It is thought that Leonardo da Vinci heated the lead(II) oxide powder and dissolved it in linseed oil or walnut oil, resulting in a mixture that was thicker and dried faster than traditional oil paint. This recipe was later also adopted by other artists. It is remarkable that the same plumbonacrite substance was found in Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Night Watch’, which dates from 1642, almost a century and a half after the ‘Mona Lisa’. This suggests that the Dutch master may have used a similar technique to da Vinci.
This discovery once again illustrates how modern analysis methods provide new insights into historical objects. Advanced 3D imaging has previously been used to examine another da Vinci painting called ‘Salvator Mundi.’ It also highlights the creativity of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist who excelled not only in painting, but also in other fields such as mathematics, chemistry and engineering.
“He was someone who liked to experiment and each of his paintings is technically completely different,” said chemist Victor Gonzalez, of the Institut de Recherche de Chimie Paris in France, to the Associated Press.
The research was published in the ‘Journal of the American Chemical Society.’
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