Da Vinci Bust Myth Debunked By French Scientists
We like to live by moral codes such as “credit where credit is due,” but in this story about Leonardo da Vinci it seems he was given credit for a famous artwork were it definitely was not due. The latest disclosure in this story is that Leonardo da Vinci was not the sculptor of the famous Flora bust. In fact, new analysis reveals the piece wasn't even carved until 300 years after his death.
The confusion arose when Wilhelm von Bode acquired the sculpture for the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in 1909 and brazenly announced it to be a lost da Vinci. (Public domain)
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Flora, the wax bust depicting the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, was originally purchased by the German curator Wilhelm von Bode in 1909 who claimed it was an original Da Vinci artwork. However, new research published in the journal Scientific Reports in April 2021 shows that the bust was actually created by the British artist Richard Cockle Lucas in the early 19th century.
A team of French chemists uncovered the gaffe when they radiocarbon dated the famous sculpture and discovered that Flora was not made in the 1500s, but was actually created in the 1800s. Flora is currently held in the collections of the Bode Museum in central Berlin and, according to a report in the Daily Mail, museum authorities were said to have been “delighted to have snatched a great art treasure from under the very noses of the British art community.”
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The confusion began in 1909 when Wilhelm von Bode acquired the sculpture for the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. At the time he paid only a few pounds for it at a London gallery, before brazenly announcing it to be a lost da Vinci. In reality, the British artist Richard Cockle Lucas sculpted the bust based on a painting alongside his son Albert, who later detailed how he and his father stuffed the artwork with objects, including a letter dated to the 1840s. According to an article in Nature, when the base of the sculpture was removed by museum staff, they found the insides of Flora “matched Albert Lucas' descriptions exactly.”
In 1910 confusion arose when British artist Richard Cockle Lucas, seen above, claimed he had been commissioned to sculpt the bust. (Public domain)
Historic da Vinci Myth Debunked With Hard Scientific Proof
Richard Cockle Lucas, who lived from 1800 to 1883, was a British sculptor and photographer whose sculptural works were generally inspired by biblical stories and 18th century poetry. His most famous works include a relief of Leda and the Swan, as well as reproductions of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. According to the Daily Mail article, in his later years, Lucas is said to have become “rather eccentric declaiming his belief in fairies and riding around the city Southampton, near where he lived, in a Roman chariot.”
Dr. Ina Reiche of the Chemistry Research Institute of Paris, who led the new research, developed a new calibration method to date the sculpture, which was made primarily of spermaceti, a type of wax produced in the head cavity of sperm whales and beeswax. Flora was compared with Leda and the Swan to determine the ratio of spermaceti to beeswax, so to calibrate the carbon dating curves for the two materials. The conclusion is that the Flora was made with wax dating to the 18 th or 19 th century. This proves that the bust was not produced during the Renaissance, and therefore cannot be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.
Flora isn’t the only questionable da Vinci artwork in circulating. La Scapigliata (on the left) has also been controversially attributed to the Italian Renaissance artist, just as Flora (on the right) had been until this conclusive scientific evidence determined it to be the creation of British artist Richard Cockle Lucas. (Left: Public domain / Right: Public domain)
One Less Artwork, One More Dollar
The team of French scientists noted in their paper that the use of spermaceti in art objects shows “how widespread the use of sperm whale products was,” and the writers associate the use of spermaceti with the swelling of the whaling industry during the industrial revolution. The paper concludes that while many works of art have been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, the great artist-scientist-engineer of the Italian Renaissance, “art historians have struggled to find definitive proof to connect Leonardo to these art pieces.”
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In this instance, rather than proving an artwork was created by one of the greats, science was applied to smash a historical myth. In doing so, with one less da Vinci on the market it makes the remaining ones even more valuable. This case also highlights the work of the intriguing British artist Richard Cockle Lucas, brings Flora into the public eye and vindicates his son Albert, whose story about the enigmatic sculpture was met with disbelief by some in the art community.
Top image: Using radiocarbon dating technology, French chemists have discovered that the famed Flora bust was not created by Leonardo da Vinci. Source: Reiche et al. / Scientific Reports
By Ashley Cowie