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Scientists analyze fading da Vinci self-portrait in hopes of restoration

Leonardo da Vinci's presumed self-portrait
Leonardo da Vinci's presumed self-portrait
Wikimedia Commons

Some scientists have engaged in a sort of race against time by looking at ways to help preserve an important fading artwork.

The subject of the new analysis is a red chalk on paper drawing done by none other than Leonardo da Vinci, believed to have been drawn sometime between 1510 and 1515. Though historians generally believe the drawing is a self-portrait of da Vinci, there is speculation that it’s actually of his father or uncle since the subject appears to be older than his mid-50s, which da Vinci would have been in at the time it was drawn.

It wouldn’t be the first time a subject has been mistaken for the artist himself; in 2011, an analysis revealed that a Vincent van Gogh painting thought to be a self-portrait was actually of his younger brother, Theo.

Naturally, the drawing has been fading over the years and has experienced significant yellowing due to spending a lot of time stored in a moist environment, not exactly the ideal condition for a piece of art. It is currently being housed in a climate-controlled vault at the Royal Library of Turin, where it has been tucked away since 1998 (the fragility of the drawing has made it too delicate for general viewing).

As The Huffington Post noted Wednesday, scientists analyzed the portrait in 2012 and determined the yellowing appeared as a result of the poor conditions it was previously stored in. The analysis included the measuring of chromophores, which are light-absorbing compounds that tend to reflect yellow and red light, hence the yellowish fading effect.

So just how are the scientists planning to move forward with the drawing? For now, it’s unclear. The first analysis was mostly done to quantify the damage done to the portrait, but study co-author Mauro Missori said that since it has spent some time in better conditions, scientists are interested in doing a follow-up analysis to see if the drawing’s condition has stabilized.

Missori also said some scientists want to intervene by using chemicals or solutions to try and slow the fading process, while others would rather wait and see if preservation techniques are proven to be effective. Whichever route ends up being taken, scientists should hopefully be able to apply the analysis technique to other fading documents.