Mona Lisa’s mystical smile still puts viewers under a spell. Leonardo Da Vinci attained the perfection and finesse of his paintings with a technique he himself perfected. This technique is called sfumato (from the Italian for “foggy”).
In this method, several layers of color are applied over each other. The colors meld together and lend the face a mysterious glow. Philippe Walter and his team at the Louvre in Paris have now examined the faces of seven paintings signed by the master with a new non-invasive X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy technique. As the scientists report in the journal Angewandte Chemie, Mona Lisa’s secret lies in many whisper-thin layers of a transparent glaze.
Da Vinci’s technique is fascinating. The gradation of color from light to dark is barely perceptible and looks natural. “Neither brushstroke nor contour is visible: lights and shades are blended in the manner of smoke,” says Walter. The details of how the sfumato technique worked have not been determined before. Walter and his colleagues have now used a non-destructive technique, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, to track down the secret. The paintings were irradiated with X-rays. Every chemical element then gives off a characteristic fluorescent light, which allows the element to be quantified.
“Until now, the analysis had remained qualitative, because all the pigment layers were considered simultaneously,” reports Walter. “New technical advances and software have now allowed us to resolve cross-sections of the layers and to quantitatively analyze the composition and thickness of the individual pigment layers.” The seven paintings examined—including the Mona Lisa—span over 40 years of Da Vinci’s work.
In the Mona Lisa, the darker areas arose because a manganese-containing layer was applied more thickly than in the lighter areas. The underlying layers containing lead white are equally thick all over. In a painting dating from about ten years earlier, “Belle Ferronnière”, things are different: Here the shade effects are not the result of a glaze shining through; instead, Da Vinci seems to have used a covering layer of color—dark pigments in a classic oil technique,” says Walter. “The master continuously improved his painting technique. In his later paintings he was then able to produce translucent layers made of films of an organic medium ranging from 30 to only a few micrometers in thickness—an amazing achievement even by today's standards.” The long drying time of the individual layers, lasting weeks and months, explains why Da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa for over four years, leaving the painting unfinished, according to texts from the Renaissance period.
Author: Philippe Walter, Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, Paris (France), mailto:email@example.com
Title: Revealing the sfumato Technique of Leonardo da Vinci by X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy
Angewandte Chemie International Edition 2010, 49, No. 35, 6125–6128, Permalink to the article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/anie.201001116
Philippe Walter | Angewandte Chemie
How brains surrender to sleep
23.06.2017 | IMP - Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pathologie GmbH
A new technique isolates neuronal activity during memory consolidation
22.06.2017 | Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Information Technology