Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘hair’ to undergo DNA testing

Written by Hada Messia, CNNMatthew Robinson, CNNRome

A lock of hair believed to have belonged to the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci is set to undergo DNA testing, as Italians mark the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Two leading art historians will conduct the research on a lock of hair which was recovered from a private collection in the US. The researchers intend to use the DNA to explore whether bones discovered at Leonardo’s presumed burial place in France do indeed belong to the artist.

“We have recovered a lock of hair historically called ‘Les Cheveux de Leonardo da Vinci,’ along with another relic. This extraordinary find will allow us to proceed in the quest to isolate Da Vinci’s DNA,” Alessandro Vessozi, the director of the “Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci,” and Agnese Sabato, the president of the Leonardo da Vinci Heritage Foundation, said in a statement seen by CNN.

“This historic relic — a lock of hair — has long remained hidden in an American collection,” Vezzosi added. “It will now be exposed for the first time, along with documents attesting its ancient French provenance.”

Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, will conduct DNA testing on the lock of hair.

Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, will conduct DNA testing on the lock of hair. Credit: YANNICK BAILLY/AP

Leonardo died in the French town of Amboise in 1519 at the age of 67 after suffering multiple strokes, it is believed. He was invited to the town at the request of King Francis I of France, who wanted the Renaissance master to work for him as a painter, architect and engineer.

The artist is believed to have been buried in the Chapel of Saint-Florentin at the Château d’Amboise, the King’s residence, but the exact whereabouts of his remains became a mystery after the chapel was largely destroyed during the French revolution.

French poet Arsène Houssaye later discovered what he believed to be Leonardo’s bones while excavating the site of the Chapel of Saint-Florentin in 1863, and the bones were reinterred at the Chapel of Saint-Hubert, also located at the Château d’Amboise.

Sabato confirmed in the statement that their DNA analysis may help them to analyze Leonardo’s presumed remains in a tomb in Amboise. “We are planning to carry out DNA analysis on the relic and compare it to… bones found in Leonardo’s burials that we have identified in the past years,” she said.

Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life living close to King Francis I of France's residence at Château d'Amboise.

Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life living close to King Francis I of France’s residence at Château d’Amboise. Credit: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The DNA analysis will also allow Vezzosi and Sabato to further the genealogical research into Leonardo they concluded in 2016.

While the researchers found no descendants of the artist himself, as he is believed to have had no children during his lifetime, they found a “direct and uninterrupted” line from his half-brother Domenico.

“This allows us to begin the analysis of comparing this biological sample with the living descendants that we know of, and whom I met three years ago,” Vezzosi told CNN in a phone interview. “And also with the buried remains of Leonardo’s descendants.

“To be clear, it is correct to talk about the descendants of Leonardo because at a scientific level, as descendants of his father and brother Domenico conserve the Y chromosome that can be matched with that of Leonardo. Even if 10, 12 or even 15 generations have passed.”

Sabato added in the statement: “This relic is what we needed to make our historical research even more solid from a scientific point of view.”

Vezzosi noted that their research has already revealed many details about Leonardo’s grandfather, who was a “merchant in Morocco and Barcelona.” Yet he refused to anticipate the results of the upcoming tests and the possible DNA links that they may reveal.

“We want to be very even-keeled about our responses; we are not saying for certain that we have found Leonardo’s hair and that we have Leonardo’s DNA,” he told CNN.

“There is too often fake news, fake discoveries… we want to distance ourselves from the misunderstanding and present a clear reasoning on Thursday to experts, scientists, and journalists.”

The hair will go on public display as part of the “Leonardo Lives” exhibition at the “Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci” from May 2 onwards in the artist’s hometown of Vinci, close to the city of Florence. Vezzosi and Sabato will also present their findings at a press conference at the Leonardiana library in Vinci on Thursday.

Giuseppe Torchia, the mayor of Vinci, welcomed the news of the exhibition. “This exhibition is significant as it focuses on several rediscoveries about Leonardo, his workshop and his family, not to mention the innovative search for his DNA,” he said in a statement. “It also shows Leonardo’s links with his homeland and the agriculture, and his relevance in international contemporary art.”

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