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The believed 1512 red chalk self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci that’s now on public view at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin (via Wikimedia)

Gradually disappearing beneath a mottle of foxing and fading, a 1512 red chalk drawing believed to be a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci is on rare public view in Italy. Kept in a vault at Turin’s Biblioteca Reale (Royal Library), it’s been hidden for much of the past century — including once secretly taken to Rome during World War II. The strangest version of that journey holds this wasn’t just to keep it safe from art looting, but to guard the drawing’s supposed powers from the Führer.

Last month, just before the Leonardo and the King’s Treasures exhibition opened, Dany Mitzman at the BBC wrote there’s “a myth in Turin that the gaze of Leonardo da Vinci in this self-portrait is so intense that those who observe it are imbued with great strength” and “heaven forbid it should ever fall into Hitler’s hands and give him more power.”

It’s true that it was the sole work spirited away to Rome from the Biblioteca Reale, but that could very well have been its historic power that got it such protection. After all, the long arms of Hitler were scooping up masterpieces around Europe for the proposed Führermuseum, and da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” would fall into Nazi hands.

Yet it’s a good enough story to give the mysticism some internet legs in the past days as the exhibition opens and small groups are allowed into the drawing’s climate-controlled space. Some speculate it may not be da Vinci at all, but the 60-something man with a displeased frown settled amidst flowing hair and beard has done much to define our image of the Renaissance master. The work has only been displayed three times over the past hundred years, and for the Turin exhibition is joined by 80 objects including da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds and red chalk portrait of a young woman (both recently on loan from Turin to the Morgan Library for their Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin).

Magical or no, that weathered stare of the portrait is deteriorating. Since the 1990s it’s mostly been stabilized, and a paper published in the Applied Physics Letters journal this June reported that scientists had developed a new way to old manuscript gauge degradation through its study. But now is an uncommon opportunity to descend to its vault to meet those storied eyes.

The self-portrait is on view in Leonardo and the King’s Treasures at the Biblioteca Reale (Piazza Castello, Turin, Italy) through January 15. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...