By John Phillips in Rome
12 January 2005
Researchers have discovered the hidden laboratory used by Leonardo da Vinci for studies of flight and other pioneering scientific work in previously sealed rooms at a monastery next to the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, in the heart of Florence.
The workshop rooms, located between the Institute for Military Geography and the Basilica, contain frescos painted by Leonardo that have "impressive resemblances" to other examples of his experimental work. The frescos include a triptych of birds circling above a subsequently erased representation of the Virgin Mary that "constitutes a clear citation of the studies by the maestro on the flight of birds", the three researchers, Alessandro del Meglio, Roberto Manneschalchi and Maria Carchio, said yesterday.
An angel at the side of the fresco scene bears a striking resemblance to the angel in a painting of the annunciation attributed to Leonardo in the Uffizi Gallery, they added.
Leonardo's use of the rooms was referred to in letters written by Pietro di Novellara to Isabella D'Este and they were cited by Giorgio Vasari in his 16th-century biography, Lives of the Artists, they said. "The finds are particularly interesting as they will help us to understand the context in which Leonardo was working in these rooms exactly 500 years ago," said Professor Alessandro Vezzosi, a Leonardo scholar.
The Tuscan-born scientist, painter, philosopher and poet was aged 51 when he returned to Florence in 1503 after many years in Milan, where he already had established his reputation, and a period of extended travel. (His first spell in Florence came when he was 17 and became a member of the painters' guild). The rooms he took in the 16th century were in a religious house run by monks from the order of the Servi di Maria - the Servants of Mary - in a part of the monastery set aside for renting to lay people as guestrooms.
Other notable figures who would take accommodation in the same monastery later included Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio. Leonardo's second sojourn in Florence would last three years, during which his popularity grew dramatically and he painted classics such as the Mona Lisa.
Part of Leonardo's suite was walled-in after stables were built on an adjoining lot. Also discovered recently by the researchers was a previously unknown staircase dating back to 1430, which they believe was the work of the Florentine sculptor and architect Michelozzo di Bartolommeo. They also found paintings in a second-floor room, which they think are the work of the artist Morto da Feltre, who Vasari said was drawn to the monastery by the presence of Leonardo.
The discovery coincides with the opening in Rome yesterday of another major exhibit of 70 tables from Leonardo's Codex Atalanticus incorporating his visions of flying and other machines at Rome's Lincei Academy. "This will be the only chance many people ever get to see the Codex," said the exhibition's curator, Carlo Barbieri.
The tables on display are from the so-called Hoepli version of the Codex. Academics spent 15 years copying a reproduction of the original that was published in 1904 by the Hoepli publishing house. The exhibition displays Leonardo's designs next to working models of both his machines and modern machines. There are models of Leonardo's bicycle, his flying machine and his "car", driven by spiral springs contained within drums beneath the wagon, similar to a wind-up toy. Academics believe the "car" was created for the entertainment of nobles at a Renaissance celebration, possibly for use as a kind of mobile stand for a theatrical prop.
Excitement over the Leonardo discoveries was marred by an announcement from the director of the Uffizi, Annamaria Petrioli Tofani, that she was leaving Italy to work in the United States and at the Hermitage gallery in Russia. She is leaving after 41 years at the Uffizi because authorities refused her request to postpone her retirement until the age of 70.