Real-life da Vinci mysteries remain unsolved

DISCOVERY: Previously unremarked illustrations on the walls where Leonardo da Vinci once stayed are being re-examined for any indication of the maestro's touch


Sun, Jan 23, 2005 - Page 7

Fading frescoes in largely forgotten rooms of a convent where Leonardo might have sojourned are being studied to see if they have the Renaissance giant's master touch or that of his pupils, but experts say it's too early to say if the art world has made a stunning discovery.

With Dan Brown's smash-hit novel The Da Vinci Code sparking interest in the mysteries in the artist's life, an hypothesis by researchers in Florence that the rooms served as a studio for Leonardo and his pupils has grabbed the imagination of many: if they worked in the convent, might not they have done the frescoes, including one depicting birds -- a motif that tickled Leonardo's fancy? For now, it's too early to answer those questions, Renaissance art experts said.

"I don't think it's a very convincing story yet, and there is no real evidence," said James Beck, an art history professor at Columbia University in New York. "It's really in an early stage of research."

The rooms, which aren't open to the public, are on the upper floors of what was a convent in 1500-1503, when, some believe, Leonardo lodged there. Santissima Annunziata Monastery is now occupied partially by the Institute of Military Geography, some of whose researchers were intrigued by the rooms.

Those who think there's a good chance Leonardo might have painted in the rooms cite Giorgio Vasari's account that the convent let the artist stay there for free. Skeptics point out that Vasari's lively biographies of Renaissance artists were written decades after Leonardo was said to have stayed at the convent.

"The researchers made the hypothesis that these were the rooms where Leonardo and his pupils worked," said Vezzosi, the curator of a recent exhibition on Leonardo who helped present the results of the research.

Vezzosi said that Leonardo could have worked on an early version of the Mona Lisa in the workshop, since the family of the probable painting subject, Lisa Gherardini, had links to the monastery.

Leonardo arrived in Florence in 1500 and likely stayed in the rooms, Vezzosi said. For some reason, the frescoes on the rooms' walls hadn't been studied carefully.

"For the first time in this case we see birds which are absolutely dynamic, animals which are absolutely vivid and remind us of the study done by Leonardo of birds in flight," said one of the researchers, Roberto Manescalchi, an architect at the geography institute.

The birds in flight could have been frescoed by Leonardo's school. And art historians were quick to point out that contemporaries and predecessors of Leonardo also favored the bird motif.

"There's nothing about these bird studies that are unique at that date," said Colin Eisler, a professor at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. "A hundred years before, there were extraordinarily naturalistic bird studies."

While hastening to note he has not seen the frescoes, Eisler said their discoveries appeared to be "not complete eye openers."

Also in the rooms is an outline of a kneeling angel similar to Leonardo's Annunciation, which hangs in Florence's Uffizi gallery.

Another clue to the frescoes could be the discovery in the convent ofanimal frescoes attributed to Vittorio da Feltre. Vasari wrote that da Feltre came to the city in the early 1500s to visit Leonardo and Michelangelo. Beck said convent archives would have to be examined for evidence like receipts or a letter, that Leonardo was allowed to stay or work there.

"Leonardo's name now is so electric," the Columbia University professor said, referring to the frenzy over The Da Vinci Code, but cautioned that many tantalizing finds in the art history world soon fizzle.