A New Light on Leonardo

Sue Arnell, Marcom Manager, EDAX

I recently spent 10 days’ vacation back in the UK, but my visit “home” turned into somewhat of a busman’s holiday when I visited the current exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London: LEONARDO DA VINCI: A LIFE IN DRAWING. While all the drawings were very interesting, one particular poster particularly caught my eye.

Figure 1: Poster showing the use of X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) analysis on one of the drawings in the exhibition.

It may be hard to see in this small image, but the drawing in the bottom left corner of the poster showed two horses’ heads, while the rest of the sheet showed very indistinct lines. When viewed under ultraviolet light, however, it is clear that there were an additional two horses depicted on the same page.

Figure 2: Drawing of horses seen under ultraviolet light

A video on the exhibit site shows a similar result with a second page:

Figure 3: Hand study seen in daylight

Figure 4: Hand study seen under ultraviolet light

According to the poster, researchers* at the Diamond Light Source at Harwell in Oxfordshire used X-ray fluorescence, which is non-destructive and would not therefore harm the priceless drawing, to explain the phenomenon in the first drawing of the horses. Scanning a small part of the drawing to analyze individual metalpoint lines, they were able to extract the spectrum in Figure 5.

Figure 5: the results of XRF analysis on the drawing showing the presence of copper (Cu) and Zinc (Zn) in the almost invisible lines and almost no silver (Ag).

The conclusion was that Leonardo must have used a metalpoint based on a Cu/Zn alloy and that these metals have reacted over time to produce salts and render the lines almost invisible in daylight. However, under ultraviolet light, the full impact of the original drawings is still visible.

When I shared this analysis back in the EDAX office in Mahwah, NJ, Dr. Patrick Camus (Director of Engineering) had a few additional (more scientific) observations.

  • XRF may be useful in determining the fading mechanism by looking for elements associated with environmental factors such as Cl, (from possible contact with human fingertips), or S in the atmosphere from burning coal over the centuries. It may be related to exposure to sunlight as well.
  • The use of ultraviolet light as an incoming beam has a similar reaction but slightly different with the material as the x-rays producing emissions at much smaller energy level. This process is called photoluminescence. The incoming beam excites valence electrons across an energy gap in the material to a higher energy level which during relaxation to the base energy releases a photon. The energy of these photons is typically 1-10 eV or much less than x-ray detectors can sense. Interestingly, this excitation does not occur in conductors/metals, thus proving more evidence of the picture material being a band-gap or insulating material like a salt.
  • This example shows that a single technique does not always provide a complete picture of the structure or composition of a sample, but the use of multiple techniques can provide information greater than the sum of the individual contributions.

From my point of view, I have been trying to explain, promote and market the EDAX products and analysis techniques for over eight years now, so it was very interesting to see the value of some of ‘our’ applications in a real-world situation.

* Dr. Konstantin Ignatyev, Dr. Giannantonio, Dr. Stephen Parry

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