Vienna | Heidelberg, 11 June  2014. Stefaan Missinne, an independent Belgian researcher who lives in Vienna, offered evidence that a miniature anatomic skull was handcrafted by Renaissance artist, anatomist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. In a scientific article in Springer’s journal Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift, Missinne dates the skull to c.1508.

In 1987, a German couple bought the small artefact missing a lower jaw in an antique shop. The skull is proportioned to one third of a human skull. It is partially hollow and shows excellent artistic workmanship and great anatomic detail. The owners first realized that it could have been made by Leonardo after investigations in 1996 by the French skull specialist Roger Saban in Paris. Saban linked it to Leonardo’s anatomic drawing RL 19057 housed in the Royal Collection in Windsor Castle. This drawing, which remained unpublished, shows a similar deformed skull missing a lower jaw. The skull’s chemical composition and other aspects were researched in 2007 by the German university graduate Elisabeth Ahner for her thesis.

Missinne inspected the skull firsthand and attributes it to Leonardo. He says that artistic aspects including Leonardo´s Grottesque drawings and his drive for miniaturisation highlight the important link between optics and the brain. Interestingly, both the drawing RL 19057 and the artefact not only depict a high level of detailed osteologic knowledge, but share the same anatomical errors. Missinne says this reflects medieval concepts mentioned in Roger Bacon’s study of optics in his unpublished manuscript Opus Majus. Leonardo personally referred to Bacon’s work in his Codice Arundel 71v.

Researchers know of no other skull with this extraordinary level of anatomical detail showing a clear pathological case and how the optic canals connect with the inner part of the skull. Missinne therefore links it to “Perspective Communis” or Leonardo’s search for the seat of the soul. Contemporary Renaissance writings such as those in the inventory of Leonardo´s  assistant Salai confirm the possession of a detailed miniature skull made from calcedonia. Missinne thinks that the aging artist, who was prone to being melancholic, used the skull as his personal sorrow stone.

The rare element iridium measured in a sample of the skull’s material and chemical analysis has led Missinne to believe it is made of an agate-based mixture of quartz with gypsum and other binding materials called “mistioni” by Leonardo. Leonardo invented this mixture between 1503 and 1509 while researching new materials. No one else is known to have experimented with this material. Chemical comparative analysis showed that the material is consistent with “Agate Alabaster” from a mine near Volterra, Italy. The skull’s dimensions are also consistent with the use of the Florentine measurement units of Crazia and Braccia used in the Renaissance.

“The skull was exhibited several times, the last being in Leoben, Austria, and not one negative reaction was expressed on its attribution to Leonardo,” says Missinne.

Reference: Missinne, S.J. (2014). The oldest anatomical handmade skull of the world c. 1508: ‘The ugliness of growing old’ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift DOI 10.1007/s10354-014-0282-0

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