Emergency Treatment for Leonardo da Vinci’s Self-Portrait

Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait is threatened by the numerous foxing stains that have developed over time on the 500-year-old drawing.

After weeks of recently concluded tests and analysis, a grim diagnosis has been given to Leonardo’s self-portrait, a work completed when the artist was in his 60’s, and dates back to the 1510’s. The piece was drawn in red chalk on paper and is housed in Turin’s Biblioteca Reale (or, Royal Library). The drawing resides in one of the museum’s vaults so it is not in an area where visitors can see it regularly. However, the drawing was on display during a brief two-month exhibition that coincided with the celebration of the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of Italy’s unification last November.

Condition of Portrait

The drawing is ailing from a condition called “foxing“, which causes reddish spots to form on the surface of a work of art on paper. These spots are not supposed to be on the piece and could have been formed by oxidation stemming from pigmentation that Leonardo used, in addition to fungi forming on the type of paper he used, which consisted of hemp, flax and wool. Rust from the iron in the pigmentation has also been pinpointed as a suspect in the formation of the spots. As you can see in the included picture of the painting, foxing spots almost look like the measles or the chicken pox on Leonardo’s face.

What to Do?

The decision of what to do to aid the drawing will be made collaboratively between the Royal Library, Italy’s restoration institute, and scientists. “We will continue to study it, to diagnose it. Everyone agrees on that,” said Maria Cristina Misiti, head of Italy’s Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Book Patrimony. The process to remove foxing is a conservation catch-22 of sorts, as success in removal is not completely guaranteed. Due to it’s small size (13.2″ x 8.5″), delicate structure and age, the decision on whether and how to restore is not an easy one.

Is the Portrait Authentic?

Leonardo’s self-portrait, though a beloved work of art, has been at the center of controversy throughout history regarding it’s authenticity as a self-portrait. Although most scholars see a distinct connection between this drawing’s subject and Plato in Raphael’s The School of Athens (which was posed for by Leonardo, around the same time as the drawing), some scholars have doubts about whether the drawing is indeed a self-portrait of the famed Renaissance master. Much of the scholarly criticism stems from the observation that the man depicted in the drawing looks much older than Leonardo ever was, as he died at the age of 67. If that is true, the skeptical scholarly belief is that the subject of the drawing is either da Vinci’s father, Ser Piero, or his uncle Francesco.

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