Unlocking Leonardo

Advanced spectroscopic imaging techniques reveal a completely different drawing underneath Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Virgin of the Rocks'.

In 2005, a team of researchers found traces of a drawing underneath Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rockswhich is housed in the National Gallery. Since then, spectroscopic imaging techniques have significantly advanced and so in 2019, following further analysis of the painting, it was possible to reveal even more details about this underdrawing.

The National Gallery was unique at the time in the UK in having among its imaging infrastructure macro X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning and a particularly advanced hyperspectral imaging system. The use of this non-invasive technology has resulted in images that reveal much more of the underdrawing, which is completely different to the final composition.

Researchers have used these findings as new evidence into the long-running debate about the relationship between the National Gallery's version of this painting and the version housed in the Louvre, both created during the course of a complex and tortuous commission received by da Vinci in 1483 but not completed until 1508. This research also forms part of a wealth of work carried out in 2019 by many different institutions, motivated by events and activities to mark the anniversary of da Vinci's death, including major international conferences and exhibitions.

The National Gallery showcased these results in an immersive exhibition, 'Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece', from November 2019-January 2020, which was visited by over 64,000 people.

Advanced spectroscopic imaging techniques are expensive and require expertise in processing and interpretation of data. However, as they hopefully become more widely available, there is strong potential for more new discoveries like this one.

Read more about this discovery.

This impact case study has been produced with support from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Image: The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci. Courtsey The National Gallery.