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Possible New Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci Discovered

This engraving, created by Marcantonio Raimondi around 1505, may show Leonardo da Vinci playing an instrument called a lira da braccio. The man in the engraving was thought to be Orpheus, a musician in Greek mythology. Credit: Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art, 21.4 x 17.3 cm. Dudley P. Allen Fund 1930.579
A 1505 engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi could depict Leonardo da Vinci (image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art)

Whenever I imagine Leonardo da Vinci, I invariably picture Patrick Godfrey, the white-whiskered British actor who played him in the 1998 Cinderella movie Ever After.

What the Italian painter actually looked like can only be deduced from a handful of artworks — two red chalk self-portraits (a sketch within his “Codex on the Flight of Birds” and the 1512  drawing “Portrait of an Elderly Man”) and a few depictions by other artists, including Leonardo’s pupil Francesco Melzi, the painter Raphael, and possibly the sculptor Verrocchio.

Now, we may have another portrait to fill out our image of the 15th-century artist. In an article published in the magazine Cleveland Art, the music scholar Ross Duffin, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, claims that a 500-year-old engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, long thought to portray the Greek mythological character Orpheus, actually captures the eccentric artist.

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_presumed_self-portrait_-_WGA12798
A presumed self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1930, the print illustrates a man wearing a flowing robe and seemingly serenading a bear with a “lira da braccio.” Orpheus was traditionally depicted as a musician who had the power to charm animals with song, but Leonardo was also known for his mastery of the stringed instrument. A 1550 account by the historian Giorgio Vasari recalls how he once performed for the Duke of Milan, outshining all the other musicians present.

That’s not the only evidence Duffin offers. He describes the man in the print as being “in late middle age, with a beard and centrally parted hair with long curls” — very similar in apperance to another Leonardo portrait by Melzi. “[It also] shows a man with a beard and long curls, and the very slight bump in his nose and the ridge above the brow are an excellent match for the long-haired, bearded [man] in the Marcantonio engraving.”

A portrait of da Vinci by his student Francesco Melzi (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
A portrait of Leonardo by his student Francesco Melzi (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Speaking to Live Science, Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp called the findings “serious” and said they stand “some chance of being right.” But he also pointed out a possible problem. In 1505, when the print was created, the younger Raimondi was working in Bologna, while da Vinci would have been in Florence. “There is no obvious way they would have met,” he said.

But Duffin believes they might have encountered each other in Milan between 1506 and 1507 or in Florence in 1509. It’s also possible Raimondi never personally met Leonardo but used another portrait as a reference.

“We do not know for certain whether Marcantonio crossed paths with Leonardo,” Duffin admits, “but his engraving of ‘Orpheus Charming the Animals’ seems clearly to be an homage, intended to honor the musical skill of Leonardo da Vinci by depicting him with the instrument he was known to play incomparably, and which he shared with the greatest of all musicians.”

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