Is This Leonardo Da Vinci's Oldest Surviving Work? It's Doubtful.

Archangel Gabriel
This depiction of the Archangel Gabriel, painted on a glazed terra-cotta tile, may be the oldest artwork on record by Leonardo da Vinci. But many doubt that the 1471 tile is truly a da Vinci. (Image credit: EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock)

It's a small piece — merely a square tile depicting a curly-haired Archangel Gabriel — but it may be the oldest surviving artwork by the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci.

If verified, this painted and glazed tile may show historians what da Vinci looked like as a teenager. That's because the 1471 creation may, in fact, be a self-portrait da Vinci made — essentially putting his face on the angel's when he was just 18 years old.

However, many doubt the artwork's authenticity. Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University who is a Leonardo expert, dismissed the claim outright, as reported by The Guardian. [Leonardo Da Vinci's 10 Best Ideas]

"The chance of its being by Leonardo is less than zero," Kemp told The Guardian. "The silly season for Leonardo never closes."

The nearly 8-inch-by-8-inch (20 by 20 centimeters) square tile may contain clues linking it to da Vinci, according to Ernesto Solari, an art historian and da Vinci expert, and Ivana Rosa Bonfantino, a handwriting expert, CNN reported. Both say that a signature and date written on the angel's jawline — which reads "Da Vinci Lionardo" with the date "1471" — closely match da Vinci's handwriting.

Next to the 1471 date are the numbers 52 and 72. It's possible the 52 is a reference to 1452, Leonardo's birth year, Solari said, according to Frieze, a contemporary art magazine. Meanwhile, the 7 and 2 may refer to the letters "G" and "B" (G is the seventh letter of the alphabet, and B is the second), which could stand for Gabriel. These numbers are "more than a signature, it is typical of the famous puzzles that he loved all his life," Solari said, according to The Times.

When analyzing the handwriting, Bonfantino reviewed documents known to belong to da Vinci, including a letter the master wrote to Cardinal Ippolito d'Este in 1507 and a signature on a 1483 contract for the commission of a painting, the "Virgin of the Rocks," The Telegraph reported.

Bonfantino noticed that the "1" in the 1471 date was shorter than the other numbers, which matched the previous examples of da Vinci's writing.  

Tile provenance

At a news conference in Rome, Solari described how descendants of the aristocratic Fenice family of Ravello, Italy, found the glazed tile. It had been in the family's possession since 1499, when Giovanna of Aragon, the Duchess of Amalfi, gave it to them. But although, more recently, the family didn't know the artwork's true origins, "thankfully, they realized it was something that shone a bit brighter than the other things they found when cleaning out the house, and that is when they called us," Solari said, as reported by CNN. [11 Hidden Secrets in Famous Works of Art]

Solari added that dating techniques, including thermoluminescence (a technique used to date ancient ceramics) supports that the tile was created during the 15th century, according to The Guardian.

It's possible that the tile was fired in a kiln belonging to da Vinci's paternal grandparents, Solari said. But by 1471, the illegitimately born da Vinci had left his home in Vinci so he could apprentice with the Italian sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, The Guardian reported.

Today, most of da Vinci's works are housed in museum collections. But some are in private collections. Just last year, a painting attributed to da Vinci known as the "Salvator Mundi" ("Savior of the World") was auctioned at Christie's for $450.3 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.