A pair of art historians claim that they now possess a lock of hair which belonged to Leonardo da Vinci. They plan on conducting DNA testing in order to confirm the identity of the hair’s owner — an announcement which coincides with the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death. Critics, however, claim that it will be impossible to confirm whether the hair came from the famous Renaissance inventor and artist since Leonardo’s original tomb was destroyed and there are no reliable living descendants to compare their DNA to that from the hair.
The Renaissance of Leonardo’s DNA
Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in a farmhouse outside the village of Anchiano, in present-day Italy. Historians believe he was born out of wedlock to respected Florentine notary Ser Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci and a young peasant woman named Caterina. At the age of five, he moved to his father’s family estate in nearby Vinci, the Tuscan town from which his surname derives. Leonardo da Vinci died of a probable stroke on May 2, 1519, at the age of 67, in the French town of Amboise.
Both Italian and French towns celebrated the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death with special events and exhibitions. As part of the celebration, Alessandro Vessozi, the director of the “Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci,” and Agnese Sabato, the president of the Leonardo da Vinci Heritage Foundation, announced that they have come under the possession of a lock of hair belonging to Leonardo da Vinci. According to Vessozi, the hair had remained hidden in a private American collection.
“We found, across the Atlantic, a lock of hair historically tagged ‘Les Cheveux de Leonardo da Vinci’”—French for “Leonardo da Vinci’s hair,” Sabato said in a statement.
Vezzosi adds, “This historical relic … has long remained hidden in an American collection. It will now be exposed for the first time, along with documents attesting [to] its ancient French provenance.”
— ArtDaily (@artdaily) May 4, 2019
The artist is believed to have been buried in the Chapel of Saint-Florentin, which was destroyed during the French revolution. In the late 19th century, French poet Arsène Houssaye discovered what he believed to be Leonardo’s bones while excavating the ruins of the chapel. The bones were placed at the Chapel of Saint-Hubert, also located at Château d’Amboise.
The Vitruvian Man
On May 2, da Vinci’s Sabato and Vessozi said in a statement that they want to perform DNA analysis on the hair and compare it to the presumed remains at the Amboise tomb. However, the seriousness of such an undertaking has been put into question by experts.
Firstly, there is no reliable way to link Leonardo’s hair to the bones at the Amboise tomb, which could belong to anyone given the original ransacking. Then there’s the question of extracting DNA from the hair itself, a process which isn’t as straightforward as it might sound — the original genetic material may be degraded or contaminated.
The historians have also proposed comparing genetic material from the lock of hair to that belonging to da Vinci’s living descendants. In 2016, Vezzosi and Sabata claimed to have identified 35 living relatives of Leonardo using historical documents. These individuals were linked to Leonardo’s father via the artist’s brother. Leonardo didn’t marry or have children.
However, there are only two types of DNA can be traced reliably over the centuries. One is mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from the mother’s side and is solely passed on only through an unbroken female line. Similarly, Y-chromosome DNA comes from the father and is passed on to the next generation only through an unbroken male line. The relatives identified by Vezzosi and Sabata don’t represent unbroken male or female lines, and as such cannot be used to reliably confirm whether the hair did, in fact, belong to Leonardo.
Elsewhere, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute are testing paintings, notebooks, and drawings which belonged to da Vinci looking for traces of his DNA such as fingerprints, skin flakes, and strands of hair. If it can ever be obtained, this DNA can then be compared to the newly announced lock of hair or any other similar remains.