Newly Discovered Leonardo da Vinci Portrait on Display at the College of William and Mary

Leonardo da Vinci's self portrait. Photo: courtesy Muscarelle Museum of Art
Leonardo da Vinci's self portrait.<br /> Photo: courtesy Muscarelle Museum of Art

Leonardo da Vinci’s self portrait.
Photo: courtesy Muscarelle Museum of Art

A newly discovered self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, only the second in existence, is currently on exhibit not at the Met or at the Louvre, but inside the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The self-portrait was unearthed five years ago within the Codex on the Flight of Birds, one of only 20 of da Vinci’s remaining codices, which includes both text and 18 sketches of birds. It was executed in red chalk and depicts an unsmiling da Vinci at age 53. According to curator John Spike, the work went unnoticed within the codex for centuries because of lines of text that run across it. “It was not until five years ago that someone thought of digitally subtracting the image in red chalk,” he told artnet News.

The show, which focuses on da Vinci’s fascination with the dueling concepts of beauty and ugliness, features over 20 precious drawings in addition to the portrait, including a study for Virgin of the Rocks (1483–1486). Eight works by da Vinci’s rival Michelangelo Buonarroti are also on display.

“To have this [exhibition], to see for the first time ever a newly discovered self-portrait of da Vinci makes this incomparable,” Aaron De Groft, the director and CEO of the museum, told the local newspaper Williamsburg Yorktown Daily. On how a small college museum acquired the loan of such precious works from the renowned Uffizi Gallery in Florence and Biblioteca Reale in Turin, De Groft said: “The Italian museums respect the seriousness of our scholarship.”

The Washington Post reports that the drawings were shipped from Italy with armed guards on a top-secret travel schedule in frames equipped with micro-climates and sensors linked to computers. On opening night, over a thousand William & Mary students lined up to view the sketches. The exhibition was conceived alongside the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which will be the second and only other venue for the show.

da Vinci’s other red chalk self-portrait Portrait of an elderly man (1512) was once hidden from Hitler and the Nazis due to an urban legend that it has magical powers that can grant great strength to those who lay their eyes on it (see Why Was Da Vinci’s Self-portrait Hidden from Hitler?). No word on whether or not this one possesses the same kind of power, but if we see any news items about college kids spontaneously developing superpowers, we’ll know why.

“Leonardo Da Vinci and the Idea Of Beauty” is on display at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary from February 21–April 5, 2015. It will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from  April 15 through June 14, 2015.

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