Imprint of Leonardo's Last Supper

December 3, 2006

Telltale fingerprints could shed new light on the renaissance artist, writes Marta Falconi.

Anthropologists say they have pieced together Leonardo da Vinci's left index fingerprint - a discovery that could help shed light on such matters as the food the artist ate and whether his mother was of Arabic origin.

The reconstruction of the fingerprint was the result of three years of research and could help attribute disputed paintings or manuscripts, said Luigi Capasso, an anthropologist and director of the Anthropology Research Institute at Chieti University in central Italy.

"It adds the first touch of humanity. We knew how Leonardo saw the world and the future . . . but who was he? This biological information is about his being human, not being a genius," Capasso said. The research was based on a first core of photographs of about 200 fingerprints - most of them partial - taken from about 52 papers handled by Leonardo.

The artist often ate while working, and Capasso and others said his fingerprints could include traces of saliva, blood or the food he ate the night before. For instance, experts determined that the fingerprint suggests Leonardo's mother was of "oriental origin".

"It's not like every population has typical fingerprints, but they do have specific proportions among their signs. The one we found in this finger tip applies to 60 per cent of the Arabic population, which suggests the possibility that his mother was of Middle Eastern origin," Capasso said.

The idea that the artist's mother could have been a slave who came to Tuscany from Constantinople - Istanbul, Turkey - is not new and has been the subject of other research. A Leonardo expert and the director of a museum dedicated to the artist in his hometown of Vinci, Alessandro Vezzosi, said there were documents that appeared to back this up. "This coincides with documented indications that she was oriental, at least from the Mediterranean area, not a peasant of Vinci," he said.

Vezzosi, who manages the archive of documents Capasso used for his study, warned that her origin could not be determined with certainty until a contract documenting her sale was found. "Still, her name was Caterina, the most common name among slaves in Tuscany, and we have no certain elements about her," he said.

The experts say fingerprints caused by attempts to remove ink blots were surely left by the author, Capasso said. Biological information on Leonardo is largely incomplete. The artist, who was generally but not exclusively left-handed, used his fingers to paint, and his thumbprint recurs on the manuscripts, Vezzosi said. Leonardo worked while eating or travelling, and his fingers were often dirty, sometimes with food residue, he said.

A professor of Italian literature at Naples University and a leading expert on Leonardo da Vinci, Carlo Vecce, said the research, in which he was not involved, appears to be "founded".


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