Looking for Leonardo

What did Leonardo look like? And why are people so obsessed with this question?

Greg Laden just posted a new video in which Siegfriend Woldhek (illustrator, founder of, and former CEO of Dutch World Wildlife Fund) uses simple logic to “discover” what he claims to be the Renaissance master’s face. Basically, he takes all the male faces Leo drew and. . . well, watch it for yourself:

I’m not sure that qualifies as “sophisticated image analysis techniques.” It certainly doesn’t prove anything, even if it did get BoingBoinged. But it’s less of a stretch than seeing Leonardo’s face in the Mona Lisa – a case made back in the 1990s by Lillian Schwartz, on the strength of the near-perfect alignment of features between the Mona Lisa and (if reversed) the reputed self-portrait made in red chalk by Leonardo.


Historians and scientists are so obsessed with getting a handle on Leonardo’s identity, they’ve even analyzed his fingerprints. These were sometimes left on paintings, as in this close-up of Ginevra de’Benci (btw, the attribution of this painting to Leonardo da Vinci is not completely unanimous), and sometimes in his notebooks, particularly when blotting ink.

Leonardo da Vinci’s fingerprint
Ginevra de’Benci, 1474-1478
National Gallery of Art

Fingerprints of Leonardo da Vinci
photo:University of Chieti, Italy

Although it can’t tell us what his face looked like, Luigi Capasso of the University of Chieti, Italy, argues that this left index print could add to our limited biographical data on Leonardo da Vinci, helping to ID unattributed or controversial works, and perhaps even indicating his ethnicity. From the AP report:

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 in his life.

The artist often ate while working, and Capasso and other experts said his fingerprints could include traces of saliva, blood or the food he ate the night before. It is information that could help clear up questions about his origins.

Certain distinctive features are more common in the fingerprints of some ethnic populations, experts say.

“The one we found in this finger tip applies to 60 percent of the Arabic population, which suggests the possibility that his mother was of Middle Eastern origin,” Capasso said.

This is consistent with the hypothesis that Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, was a slave of Middle Eastern descent. (Another hypothesis has her modeling for the Mona Lisa).

Honestly, I have no idea why it matters what Leonardo’s ethnicity is – and even if it did matter, we certainly couldn’t deduce his ancestry or physical appearance from a single fingerprint! That’s just not how population-based markers, either genetic or forensic, work.

I appreciate that Woldhek went at this question so simply and directly, on the strength of his instincts as an artist, rather than as a historian or theorist. I’m surprised, though, that he doesn’t acknowledge that artists’ portraits, especially their imagined faces, generally have a family resemblance. I’ve heard artists say anecdotally that there is an unconscious tendency to skew portraits to be more like one’s own features, perhaps as a result of looking in a mirror for one’s whole life (surely most adults have seen their own face an order of magnitude more times than anyone else’s), or perhaps for some more nebulous emotional/empathetic reason. I’ve no idea if there has been rigorous research on this or not, but I’ve heard it often enough to make me wonder. Could it be that the Mona Lisa and Woldhek’s three male faces all resemble Leonardo simply because they’re all the products of his mind?


  1. #1 blf
    April 14, 2008

    Here’s The Grauniad’s report (in the Arts section) on Cianchi’s study, Da Vinci’s mother was a slave, Italian study claims. Short but easy to read (for those who don’t know the hypothesis).

    And you’re quite right, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. But we humans are curious about such things, and this is da Vinci …

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