POLO REALE, Royal Library Leonardo Self-Portrait

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Audio File length: 2.20
English Language: English

This is probably the most famous selfie in the history of art, and you've probably seen it countless times, reproduced in a myriad of ways and on every possible material: he has a stern face, a large receding hairline, thick, bushy brows, and a long flowing beard, almost like a biblical prophet. This is Leonardo da Vinci's Self Portrait, which is certainly the Royal Library's pièce de résistance.

The self-portrait is made with a technique called "sanguigna", or blood, and dates back to about 1515, when Leonardo was 63 years old. He probably drew it after moving to Amboise at the service of the French King Francis I. Some scholars believe that the work was done much earlier, and therefore don't believe that the elderly man depicted is Leonardo. Regardless, there is no doubt that this drawing corresponds to the features the artist was traditionally given by his contemporaries, such as Raphael.

Upon his death in 1519, Leonardo left all his manuscripts, drawings, and notes to his friend and student Francesco Melzi, who brought them back to Italy to his villa in Vaprio d'Adda near Bergamo. Unfortunately, however, Melzi's heirs reshuffled and scattered the extraordinary collection: some of the drawings were bound together to form Leonardo da Vinci's famous "codexes".

His Self Portrait only resurfaced again at the beginning of the 1800s in Milan, when it was copied and reproduced in an engraving for a book. But the story is quite mysterious: the drawing disappeared again only to reappear thirty years later as a possession of a Piedmont collector who said he had bought it in England or France. It is thanks to this collector that Leonardo's design is in Turin today: in fact, it was purchased by Charles Albert of Savoy along with many other drawings by great artists, and from the Savoy collections they then finished here at the Royal Library.


FUN FACT: if you're wonder what this "sanguigna", or blood technique is, don't worry: it's nothing macabre or violent, it's just a drawing made with an iron-based pencil. The marks on the paper have a reddish color that looks just like blood!

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