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Is This ‘Vermicelli-Haired’ Archangel Gabriel the Work of a Teenage Leonardo?

Italian art historians claim that the 15th-century tile is the Renaissance master’s earliest known work – but a leading Leonardo expert disagrees

The painting of Archangel Gabriel, 15th century.

The painting of Archangel Gabriel, 15th century. Fair use

The painting of Archangel Gabriel, 15th century

Art expert Ernesto Solari is claiming that a 15th-century painting of the archangel Gabriel, which adorns a 20 cm square majolica glazed tile, is the earliest known work of Leonardo da Vinci. Solari argues that infrared analysis has revealed a miniature signature which reads ‘Da Vinci Lionardo’ on the angel’s jaw, confirming its author. It was originally legible when painted, Solari says, but was later smudged during the firing process.

Solari unveiled the work in a press conference in Rome on Wednesday. He claims that Leonardo painted the tile, aged just 18 in 1471, drawing on his own studies in his grandfather’s ceramic workshop.

The date 1471 alongside the numbers 52 and 72 are included in the work – Solari argues that 52 refers to 1452, Leonardo’s birthdate, and the 7 and 2 are references to the order in which G and B appear in the alphabet – alluding to Gabriel. ‘More than a signature, it is typical of the famous puzzles that he loved all his life,’ he said.

Thermoluminescence dating was used on the tile to trace its firing date back to the latter half of the 15th century. It was given to Solari by a member of the Fenice family of Ravello – it has been in the family since 1499 after it was gifted by Giovanna of Aragon, Duchess of Amalfi.

But Solari’s claims are disputed by leading Leonardo expert Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at the University of Oxford. ‘The handling of the hair is spectacularly unconvincing – it looks like vermicelli,’ he said. ‘The chance of its being by Leonardo is less than zero. The silly season for Leonardo never closes.’

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