Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift

, Volume 164, Issue 11–12, pp 205–212 | Cite as

The oldest anatomical handmade skull of the world c. 1508: ‘The ugliness of growing old’ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

original article


The author discusses a previously unknown early sixteenth-century renaissance handmade anatomical miniature skull. The small, naturalistic skull made from an agate (calcedonia) stone mixture (mistioni) shows remarkable osteologic details. Dr. Saban was the first to link the skull to Leonardo. The three-dimensional perspective of and the search for the senso comune are discussed. Anatomical errors both in the drawings of Leonardo and this skull are presented. The article ends with the issue of physiognomy, his grotesque faces, the Perspective Communis and his experimenting c. 1508 with the stone mixture and the human skull. Evidence, including the Italian scale based on Crazie and Braccia, chemical analysis leading to a mine in Volterra and Leonardo’s search for the soul in the skull are presented. Written references in the inventory of Salai (1524), the inventory of the Villa Riposo (Raffaello Borghini 1584) and Don Ambrogio Mazenta (1635) are reviewed. The author attributes the skull c. 1508 to Leonardo da Vinci.


History of medicine Leonardo da Vinci Mistioni Osteology Soul 

Der älteste handgemachte anatomische Schädel der Welt um 1508.: „Die Widerwertigkeit des Alterns“ zugeschrieben Leonardo da Vinci


Der Autor erörtert einen vorher noch unbekannten von Hand gemachten anatomischen Miniaturschädel aus dem frühen sechzehnten Jahrhundert. Der kleine, naturalistisch wirkende Schädel wurde aus einer künstlichen Mixtur genannt „Mistioni“ aus Agate (Calcedonia), eine mikrokristalline Varietät des Minerals Quarz gemischt u.a. mit Gips gemacht und zeigt bemerkenswerte osteologische Details. Der erste, der eine Verbindung zu Leonardo Da Vinci machte, war Dr. Saban aus Paris. Die dreidimensionale Perspektive und die Suche nach dem „Senso Comune“ werden besprochen. Anatomische Fehler, die sowohl in den Zeichnungen Leonardos als auch in diesem Schädelmodell vorkommen, werden präsentiert. Der Artikel schließt mit dem Thema der Physionomie, seinen grotesken Köpfen, der „Perspective Communis“ und seinen Experimenten um 1508 mit der Mischung Mistioni und dem menschlichen Schädel ab. Beweise, inklusive der angewandten italienischen Maße wie Crazie und Braccia sowie eine chemische Analyse, die zu einer bestimmten Mine in Volterra führt und Leonardos Suche nach dem Sitz der Seele werden vorgeführt. Schriftliche Hinweise im Nachlass von Salai (1524), dem Inventar der Villa Riposo (R. Borghini 1584) und D. A. Mazenta (1635) werden begutachtet. Der Autor schreibt diesen Schädel Leonardo da Vinci um 1508 zu.


Geschichte der Medizin Leonardo da Vinci Mistioni Osteologie Die Seele 


In the course of the research on the oldest globe c. 1504 [1] to depict the new world attributed to Leonardo da Vinci [2], I came across a miniature-scale model of a human skull that drew my attention. Upon contacting the owners of this artefact, I was informed that they had done more than 30 years of research on this topic, and had been in contact with numerous world experts both in the field of anatomy and art history and on Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).

Material and methodology

Until now, research on this undated skull model was published in Germany [3]. As to the methodology, in this paper, I intend to have an investigative look at this artefact and the results of the published research and add findings based on personal analysis, exhibitions, contacts with experts on Leonardo and on anatomy, desk research and key bibliographical references that were not included in the 2007 university thesis on this skull.


In 1987, a German couple, a certified translator and a medical doctor, who prefer to remain anonymous, acquired a small-scale miniature skull in an antique shop. What follows is a short description of this skull for the reader based on my personal inspection and meeting with the owners in January 2014.

It is a small, naturalistic looking, deformed skull of a more than 50 year old male and it is made of a partially hollowed stone-like material. The well-proportioned skull shows excellent artistic workmanship and has intricate, filigree osteopathic details. The lower jaw is missing. Only one cheekbone and ossified cranial joints, typical for an old person, are shown. A faint upper nuchal line on the external top of the skull between two parallel sutures and a pronounced circle formed ‘dent’ (external occipital protuberance) where the skeletal muscle is to be attached to the skull, typical for a male person is clearly visible. Detailed eye sockets lead to the inside of the cranium and allow for a ‘view’ of the inside, which is anatomically abnormal (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Frontal view of the skull attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, with the missing mandibula and the particular canalis optici. (Picture: Dr. K. Becker)

The forehead is heavily bulging below and above. It has a convex nose with a hump above and all but one missing tooth leaving an overall scurrilous impression.

The dimensions of the skull were measured by the author on 5 January 2014. The first to write to the owners mentioning the Florentine Braccia of the object was Prof. Dr. H. Günther from the University of Zürich in a personal letter dated 5 January 1998. The weight is 140 g. The height is 4.73 cm (exact size of one Tuscan Crazia). The width is 4.98 cm. The length measures 5.83 cm, which is exactly 1/10 of a Braccia of Florence [4]. The Florentine Crazia and Braccia were abolished as measurement units in 1811 by Napoleon. The origin of the skull leads, therefore, to Florence, Italy. The colour is milky white and pale yellow with various minute brownish yellow oxide stains. No stone veins are showing. The quartz-like material has a relative vitreous, waxy lustre and very fine formed grains. The stone feels smooth, curved and heavy and is not translucent. An average hardness is stated. There are no visual manufacturing traces like possible signs of stone carving.

In 1996, the owner’s curiosity was for the first time aroused as they found and met a Skull specialist of world fame in Paris. Prof. Dr. R. Saban was the first who stated that to their knowledge, ‘Il n’existe aucune répresentation miniaturisée d’un crâne human, sculpté dans un marbre, et qui de plus présenterait la démonstration d’un cas pathologique…’ [5]. In English, ‘No other human miniature skull carved in marble, which demonstrates a pathological case, exists’. Initially, it was thought the material was marble. Later, analysis proved it to be a mixture of gips and quartz.

Dr. Saban was also the first who made the link with Leonardo’s unpublished anatomical drawings and with one specific drawing, the sectioned cranium (RL 19057 v), kept at the Royal Collection in Windsor. The first ever made highly detailed anatomical views, including section views, were made by Leonardo da Vinci c. 1489. Engravings of skulls were made by Martin Schöngauer (1475) and Fra Barolomeo (1500). The first detailed printed drawings date back to 1543 and were made by the Flemish Medical Doctor Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564).

Like the skull, this drawing (RL 19057 v) has no lower jaw, and the study of Dr. Saban is important as he states ‘les proportions entre les os de la face et la voûte crânienne étant compatibles avec celles d’un crâne humain adulte, à l’èchelle du tiers’. In other words, ‘The proportions between the bones of the face and the cranial vault are consistent with those of a human skull reflecting a scale of 1/3’.

He concludes, ‘un aspect suffisamment frappant et inhabituel pour faire réaliser par un sculpteur sur marbre cette miniature au tiers, très précise, à la demande d’un esprit scientifique voulent en conserver une trace tridimensionelle et un modèle plus transportable et discret q’un crâne humain adulte, provenant par example d’une sépulture ou d’une fouille’. In English, ‘A striking, unusual and rare fact for a sculptor to create this very precise, proportional 1/3 scale model, which breathes a scientific spirit wanting to conserve a three-dimensional piece, which is easier to transport in secrecy than a human skull originating from a burial site or an exploration’.

The findings listed earlier in the text were added to the ones from important Leonardo experts, including Mazenta, Vasari, Baratta, Clark, Clayton, Gombrich, Kemp, Kwakkelstein, Laurenza, Ost, Payne, Pedretti and Suida. These were researched in 2007 by Mag. Elisabeth Ahner in her aforementioned thesis for the Albert-Ludwig-University in Freiburg.

It is astonishing that in the first documented work by Dr. Saban, aspects like unusual, striking, proportions, precision, scale, scientific spirit, human adult, three dimensionality and secrecy are stressed upon. This may not at all be a coincidence.


In what follows, as a base for the discussion, I intend to have an investigative look at the findings of the university thesis of Mag. E. Ahner.

From an anatomical perspective, it can be concluded that both the miniature skull model and the anatomical drawings of skulls by Leonardo da Vinci depict the same level of knowledge of the outer morphological depiction of the bones of the skull. A distinction between the outer and inner morphological details is made. The inner ones, with a few exceptions in the orbits, are not available due to the nature of the material used to make the skull. The skull is only partially hollow. There are other differences between the skull and Leonardo’s drawings, as he depicts nerves and blood vessels. There are neither nerves nor blood vessels on the skull.

This extraordinary important finding that both the anatomical drawings of the skull by Leonardo and the skull model depict the same level of knowledge deserves a more detailed look to find evidence to support the following statement:

The inferior orbital fissure (intra-orbital suturae) is not shown either in the drawings by Leonardo or in this skull model.

The very unusual position on the skull, at the back of the head (occipital), of the dense, fibrous connective tissue joint that separates the front of the skull bone from the back (parietal) bones of the skull called sutura coronalis can be seen both in the drawing RL 19057 of Leonardo and the miniature skull. As these morphological details are clearly visible on the skull model, it corrects the statement by Mag. Ahner on page 96 in her thesis.

The canal containing the nasolacrimal duct (canalis nasolacrimalis), the small zygomaticofacial foramen (Foramina zygomaticofacialis) and the supraorbitale foramen on the eye socket under the forehead (supraorbitale) are clearly visible both on the drawings of Leonardo and on the skull model (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Lateral view of the skull attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Length, 5.83 cm (1/10 of a Florentine Braccia). (Picture: Dr. K. Becker)

It is important to add that the book ‘Fasciculus Medicinae’, a bundle of six medieval medical treatises including anatomical dissection but without a detailed morphological study of the skull (Venice, Latin, 1491; a printed copy of ‘fassiculu medicine—latino’), formed part of the extensive library of Leonardo (, shown in his Codice Madrid II Fol. 2 v and Fol. 3 r [6].

The findings of the micro-RFA (X-Ray fluorescence spectroscopy) analysis in 2003 at the College of Higher Education (Fachhochschule) Aalen (FA) in Aalen on the skull define the material to be based on ‘agate alabaster’ from the Cipollone mine near Volterra, 80 km from Florence, and that this type of stone in contained in the skull as mentioned by Mag. Ahner. This important finding deserves detailed attention.

Upon inspecting the skull in January 2014, I found that the skull is not transparent like alabaster, nor does it have the typical multi-coloured curved or angular banding. Agate is a variety of chalcedony (SiO2), a cryptocrystalline form of silica, which means the quartz crystals are too small to be seen without high magnification, and are composed of very fine intergrowths of the mineral quartz and moganite. Chalcedony was believed according to several printed sources in renaissance [7], some of which were even found in the personal library of Leonardo da Vinci, under ‘Lapidario’ (Nr. 81), to increase vitality and stamina. In the mentioned literature, it was thought to increase endurance and promote emotional balance while relieving melancholy, fever, gallstones and even eye problems. Plinius wrote in his natural history a long essay on agate and its properties [8]. The Lapidario according to Reti refers to ‘Il Lapidario o la forza e la virtu delle pietre preziose delle erbe e degli animale’. Count Girolamo d’Adda who studied Leonardo’s reading materials in the nineteenth century thought it might be an Italian translation of the Liber Lapidum, also called De gemmis, by a French bishop Marbodeus of Rennes (c.1035–1123), which particularly deals with the medicinal properties of precious stones. It is known that Leonardo was fascinated by nature, and also by gem stones, as he included several in his master pieces.

The first laboratory findings from the 28th of September 1999 from the Räthgen Laboratory in Berlin using X-ray diffraction (XD), Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) and a Micro chemical Test found it to be a mixture of gypsum (CaSO4) and quartz (SiO2) with an added influx of metal scrapings and other elements and interpreted it to be a modelling compound. The findings in the thesis of Ahner are based on several additional tests at different institutes with different methods and levels of precision, which were partially contradictory. On confronting Mag. E. Ahner in January 2014 with the fact that the element iridium (Ir) was measured using RFA and appeared as a test result in one finding, but had been unnoticed, she was unable to give an explanation.

Ahner states in her thesis that

Da das Objekt, wie oben erwähnt, rein von seinem Aussehen her anfangs für Marmor gehalten wurde, wäre es möglich, dass dies vom Künstler beabsichtigt war und in diesem Sinne die Eisenspäne den Eindruck von Marmor, zusätzlich zum optischen Effekt des Materials, noch haptisch(!) unterstützen sollten.

In English,

Because the object, as mentioned above, initially was taken for a kind of marble, it may have been possible that the artist did this on purpose, and therefore added small iron particles in order to support a haptic or infatuational effect apart from the optical effect with patches of browns and reds.


Ein weitere Grund, außer den günstigeren Preis als Marmor, könnte darin bestehen, dass der Hohlraum im Inneren des Schädels und die Zugänge zu diesem in Form der Sehkänäle einfacher in einer Modelliermasse zu gestalten wären als durch das bildhauerische Bearbeiten eines massiven Marmorblöcks. Man betrachte dazu nur die kleinen Öffnungen der Sehkanäle und die Foramen Magnum im Verhältnis zu der großräumigen Aussparung im Schädelinneren.


Another reason for choosing modelling material rather than marble (massive block), which would have meant hammering, may, other than the lower price, have been that it was easier to make an oval cavernous hole in this skull model and to make the small openings for the canelis optici to that cavernous hole. One only has to look at the small openings of the canalis optici and the foramen magnum in relation to the big cavernous hole on the inside of the skull.

The aforementioned finding that a modelling material, based on grind agate mixed with calcium, is supported by the fact that in one test case, as mentioned, Ir was detected.

The source for the Ir must be foreign, as ‘agate alabaster’ is not known to contain traces of that particular chemical element. It was confirmed by mail by Univ. Prof. Vincenso Pascucci, from the Dipartamento Scienza della Natura e del Territorio, on 14 January 2014, that he had never measured any traces of Ir in alabaster from Volterra. Alabaster is known to contain traces of iron oxide. In this case, non-translucent inclusions, possibly small pieces of iron, which do not show an equally distributed pattern, were detected by a scan as mentioned by Ahner. Alabaster, as a fine-grained form of gypsum, is an aggregate that was precipitated from sea water and salty ground waters 200–280 million years ago. Ir, in contrast, is a ‘platinum-group’ metallic element that is extremely uncommon. It is estimated to be as low as 0.05 ng/g of sediment and as old as 65 million years at the impact of an asteroid that caused the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs. It was measured in the Cretaceous–Palaeogene boundary clay in Italy [9].

The source of the Ir may have been sediment or river sand. This finding of Ir confirms that the material from which the skull was made is most probably a mixture called ‘mistioni’, which Leonardo da Vinci invented, of which I failed to find any reference in the thesis of Ahner. Leonardo was involved in the research of new materials since c. 1503, but in particular c. 1508, the years to which Manuscript F and a large number of the folios in the Codex Hammer date. According to Bernardoni, the latter and the Codex Arundel contain the most acute and pregnant observations and reflections on the structure of matter (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

The skullcap (calvaria) of the skull attributed to Leonardo da Vinci with the parallel sutura sagittalis, the sutura coronalis and the lambdoid suture. (Picture: Dr. K. Becker)

I quote Dir. Dr. Paolo Galluzzi, Director of the Museo Galileo:

These (artificial and natural processes) represent the artist’s application of the same methodology that he used for these anatomical studies to the study of substances, and reflect his constant search for modalities to visualize and document the internal structure of both machines and the human body. [10]

The first who examined the approximately 7,000 surviving notes and drawings (only 40 % of the estimated original amount, so many are either lost or still unaccounted for) by Leonardo da Vinci with the aim to find references to chemistry and the theory of natural substances and who published about mistioni was Ladislao Reti in 1952.

Leonardo was the only source to develop his own mistioni [11] most likely applied in the making of this unique anatomical skull model.

So, apart from the fact that Leonardo was the first to show skull sections based on human dissections, he was also the first to produce his own mixture with which he could make anything, including artificial pearls [12]. He writes in Ms F 73 v that he can make ‘calcedonio’. In the Codice Atlanticus 293 r (c. 1508), he describes how to make ‘agatis’.

More important for this research is the three-dimensional perspective and the anthropometric techniques to depict the senso comune.

The anatomical drawings of the skull by Leonardo show reference points. Ahner cites the following correspondences between the reference points in Leonardo’s skull drawings and the skull model:

The location of the hollow space in the skull is directly under the corona sutura (sutura coronalis) and in specific under the bregma. The bregma is the anatomical junction on the skull at which the corona sutura is intersected perpendicularly by this sagittal sutura.

I already mentioned that on both the skull and the drawing, these lie exceptionally to the base end of the skull. Horizontally the hollow space lies on the level of the temples, the sides of the head right behind the eyes. It reaches as far as the bony ridges located above the eye sockets called the brow ridges. Last but not least, the optic canals (canales optici;; RL 19057 r), lead to the senso comune where the cranial nerve (nervus opticus), which transmits visual information from the eye to the brain, ends. [13]

Leonardo states the following in his codice:

The opening b (optic foramen) is where the visual power passes to the sensorium…. [14]

The Leonardo scholar Dr. Domenico Laurenza underlines the importance of this extraordinary location of the suturae in the classical and in the scholastic medicine.

Ahner cites Laurenza, author of De Figura Umana [15], and refers to the works of Mondino dei Luzzi (1275–1326), who states that there are only three real suturae, as three ventricles, namely the coronalis, the sagittalis and the lambodoidea. Ahner finds that these three have a totally different regular form (not at all a meandering course) and mode from the ‘unreal’ suturae squamosae, which does not lead to the inner of the skull. Indeed, these three differ from the latter on the skull. Ahner does not state that the sagittalis on the skull is formed from two parallel suturae, an anomaly of nature, in which this suturae forms ‘river islands’. It is certainly an artistic aspect that has been neglected. The interested reader may wonder why this is relevant.

This depiction is an anatomical aberration, both on the skull as well as on the drawing. This ‘error’ [16] is among a number of errors that Dr. Rolando del Maestro, world leading expert on skull anatomy of Leonardo da Vinci, has noticed to be too important to be accidental. It is a reflection of a medieval concept. How did Leonardo learn about this concept? Ahner states Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294), advocate of experimental science, as a possible source. Bacon is not the only possible source, but a very important possibility, because his manuscript was non-existent in printed form. Other sources for optics that may have played a role were Alhazen, Akindi, Avicenna, Galen, Grossetest, Peckham, Witelo and Pelcano. I investigated the printed work of Pechham, which was also part of Leonardo’s library, but found no relevant detailed anatomical drawings, neither from the skull nor from the eye. It is known that the works of Galen of Pergamon (AD c. 129–200) influenced Marcantonio della Torre (1481–1511), Leonardo’s friend and professor of Medicine [17].

Roger Bacon’s study of optics in part 5 of Opus Majus was not published, but existed only in the form of a Latin manuscript, in the Vatican. Inspection of Leonardo’s extensive inventory of his library confirms that he did not possess a copy of this manuscript. So he must have personally consulted it, or more likely, read a summary or copy by a third source in the archducal library in Pavia or Urbino, which, it is known for certain from his codices, that he had access to.

Footnotes can be very important. In this case, it is Footnote 52 in the work of Ahner that states that ‘Leonardos Kenntnis von Bacons Werk kann erst nach 1508 dokumentiert werden…’ , which means, ‘There is only a documented knowledge of Bacon’s work by Leonardo after c. 1508…’ . Indeed, I only found one reference (Footnote 32) to ‘Ruggiera Bacon’, or Roger Bacon, in Codice Arundel 71 v. 1508, which coincides with the Treaty of the Eye, written by Leonardo in Manuscript D [18].

In that codice, Leonardo expresses a wish to have Roger Bacon in a printed version!

So, in the two cases above, there is a reference to c. 1508: his experimenting with Mistioni and his handwritten note mentioning Roger Bacon.

Now I discuss the remarks by Ahner with regard to the possible assessment of a person’s character from the outer appearance of the face of the person based on the skull in general and the issue of physiognomy and Leonardo’s drawings of faces of old men in particular (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

External basis of the skull (cranii externa) attributed to Leonardo da Vinci with only one arcus zygomaticus instead of two, an unusual small circular foramen magnum and a clear protuberantia occipitalis externa. (Picture: Dr. K. Becker)

A reconstruction on the basis of the skull was made at the Institute of Anthropology of the University of Freiburg with a collaborator of the BKA. It showed certain characteristic facial forms, typical for Leonardo in his c. 100 grotesque drawings, none of which is frontal: a forehead bulging above and below, and deeply incised in the middle, a convex nose with the hump above, flap ears…. Ahner concludes that ‘Soweit ein Vergleich möglich war, kann angenommen werden, dass diesem Grundtypus (Gombrich [19]) der Grotesques ein Schädel von ebendieser Morphologie unterliegt, wie das Schädelmodell sie aufweist’. In English, ‘As far as a comparison was possible, it may be accepted that the fundamental type (Grombich) of the Grotesques applies and a skull of this morphology is subject to the characteristics shown by this skull model’.

In other words, the skull is made after a grotesque formed example of a human skull.

One sentence summarizes it beautifully: unbeautiful physiognomy and the ugliness of high age very well match in this skull.

Ahner cites the Dutch Leonardo expert Dr. Kwakkelstein, who in turn cites Chap. 6.2 of G. P. Lommazzo (1535–1600): ‘Several drawings of heads of old men by Leonardo and his followers can be linked to sculpted pieces, Lomazzo informs us, Leonardo had made himself, but which are unknown’ [20]. According to H. Ost, Leonardo himself speaks about plastics of heads of old men [21].

What is it that is so special about this miniature skull? It is both artistic and anatomic, and it unmistakably leads to the Perspective Communis, Leonardo’s search for the soul.

Most uncommon about this human anatomical model is the fact that the artist created an astonishingly correct morphological model, but he decided to include artistic aspects and draw attention to the importance of the link between optics and the brain.

As already noted, the canales optici are connected with the inner of the skull. There is no other existent skull known, neither in an art chamber nor in any other museum, that has this extraordinary detail of the morphology and this aspect of Perspective Communis.

In the course of this research, I contacted the scientific curator of the Ludwig Collection, Museum Schüttgen, Ms. Iris Metje, MA, in Cologne. She confirmed by mail dated 13 January 2014 that no artefact in the very extensive collection has a very high level of anatomical and morphological detail. Already much earlier, the art chamber expert Georg Laue in Munich stated by letter dated 26 May 2006 that the anatomy and morphology of this anatomical skull model that he personally inspected is far too precise to be an art chamber object.

Ten years earlier, the late art collector George Ortiz confirmed by letter to the owners dated 8 June 1996 that their hypothesis to date the object in case to the era of Leonardo da Vinci, late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, is very much possible and that the hypothesis that the cranium could be from his workshop or even better from his own hand is very real.

According to research published by neurosurgeon Dr. Rolando F. Del Maestro in 1998 on Leonardo da Vinci, with the title ‘The search of the soul’ and which is not included in the aforementioned thesis, the third phase of Leonardo’s studies associated with the location of the senso comune began in approximately c. 1508, which coincides with his experimenting with new materials and his citation of Bacon.

In these studies, he applied his skills as a sculptor. These important skills he had learned and practised during his 10 years of intensive training at the workshop of Verrocchio. He applied these trained skills in order to model the shape of the ventricular system more accurately by using the brain of an ox. In his Codice ‘Disegni Anatomici’ 113 r, Leonardo writes, ‘I need a skull’ (‘Fa d’avere un teschio’) and he sketches a miniature skull, without a lower jaw.

Leonardo changed from performing studies of an ox to the human body. According to heart surgeon MD F. Wells and author, he changed to dissecting the human heart after dissecting the heart of an ox. More recently, and due to better research methods including computer tomography techniques, it has been found by Del Maestro, who quotes Vasari, that the multi-talented painter Leonardo also made models himself.

All this leads to this skull model being made by Leonardo.

Ahner states that the skull model is made from a mixture of gypsum and quartz. The topic of Leonardo and the ‘Chemical arts’ has been researched by Dr. Andrea Bernardoni, who states that in the Manuscripts K and F, Leonardo mentions experiments carried out during the first decade of the sixteenth century on the creation of mistioni (mixtures) and the solidification of materials (p. 24).

Leonardo describes how to create a mixture using ‘calcidonio fisso’ to make it look like agate (he uses ‘agatis’) in Codice Atlanticus 293 r from c. 1508. According to Pedretti, mistioni is a plastic material of Leonardo’s own invention characterized by a decorative pattern resembling that of variegated semi-precious stones (op cit p. 144, Codex Atlanticus, Pedretti).

In a personal question to Prof. Dr. C. Pedretti, world leading Leonardo expert, in December 2013, he confirmed that it is very possible that Leonardo made models like the one of a skull using his own secret mistioni.

The comparative chemical analysis performed by the Räthgen Laboratory in 2006 on the skull model and samples from different mines in Spain and Italy show that the material is consistent with ‘Agata Alabaster’, coming from the Cipollone mine near Volterra, which is near Florence.

These aforementioned findings show that the material from which the skull is made is identical to an agate-based mixture invented by Leonardo. In their long and stony years of research, the owners have, as is usual, been confronted by the issue of provenance.

A primary source is from Raffaello Borghini in 1584 and contains a list among the goods of the Villa Riposo. On page 13, there is a clear reference: ‘Di Leonardo da Vinci vi é una testa d’un morto con tutte le sue minutie’ [22]. In English, ‘From Leonardo da Vinci, I saw a skull of a dead person with all its details’. There is no doubt that this is a skull of a dead person with all its anatomical details. It is not a drawing, as then it would be ‘un disgno di una testa’, which translates into ‘a drawing of a skull’.

A second source on the artefacts and methods by Leonardo is D.A. Mazenta, who is an important source on Leonardo from 1635. He confirms on page 37 and 45 that Leonardo had a skull in his studiolo and the tools and workshop to work with stones [23].

More recently, the inventory dated 1524 of the belongings of Salai, assistant of Leonardo, was translated in 1991. This source, 8 years after the death of his master, includes not only a Giaconda but also on page 107 a ‘detailed engraved skull made from fine calcedonia stone’ [24] and has a value of 500 s (scudi) [25].

The authors state on page 97 that ‘the logic of line of reasoning is far from unassailable, but on the strength of the evidence hitherto available the proposition has been embraced by most modern scholars’.

This statement refers to Leonardo to have given certain paintings to Salai before his death.

Leonardo writes the word ‘calcedonia’ or ‘chalcedony’, the precious stone of the quartz kind, of which agate is the best known variety in Codice Atlanticus 888 recto, c. 1482, among a long list of his artworks, among a few drawings of scurrilous heads.

One may wonder what importance this particular reference to this stone, so early in his career, may have had. It does not refer to any particular engraving or treatment, in contrast to the one contained in the inventory of Salai. Pedretti lists ‘Calcidonia’ (c 1482) on page 145 [26].


The aforementioned research based on personal interviews and publications that were not included in the thesis research written in 2007 by Ahner supports the attribution to Leonardo da Vinci. These facts, some of which may be interpreted as circumstantial, are important: The details of the scale of the skull lead to Florence. The fact that Braccia and Crazie were only used until 1811 excludes neo-renaissance. Anatomy and art were not separated in renaissance, in contrast to later art periods. Chemical research leads to a mixture of agate, 80 km from Florence, and gypsum.

The detailed depiction of the senso comune, Leonardo’s search for the soul, and the repetition of ‘anatomical errors’ both in his drawings and the skull is not a coincidence. The timing lies between 1489, the year of Leonardo’s first (unpublished) anatomical drawings, and the year c. 1509.

The unique character of the skull, uniquely depicting a pathological case, is in contrast to what Ahner writes [27], not to be defined as a Memento Mori, Vanitas or part of a Golgotha. His personal note that he is looking for a skull and the reference to Francis Bacon both are from c. 1508.

The fact that the skull was exhibited several times, the last being in Leoben, Austria, and not one negative reaction was expressed on the attribution to Leonardo and, last but not least, the precise description of a detailed skull made from caledonia stone among the inventory of Salai are evidence that supports the attribution of this artefact to Leonardo da Vinci.

It may well be that Leonardo, who was known to be melancholic, and seems, as early as 1500, to have been troubled as he got older by the loss of eyesight, as he writes he needs ‘occhiali’, meaning glasses and by sorrow, used this miniature skull in his late years as his personal sorrow stone.



The author would like to acknowledge the expertise and help of so many in performing this research, and particularly the many academics, photographers, authors, proofreaders and experts in different fields and in so many countries who pledged to keep this information confidential until publication. These include Mag. Elisabeth Ahner, Expert Jan De Graeve, Expert Manfred Mandl, Expert Ashley Barnes, Architect and Skull Expert Michel Grandsard, Expert Pierre Dumolin, MR Dr. Wolfgang Ladenbauer, Terry Childs BChE and MAS, Dott. Marisa Addomine, Dott. Laurenzo Domenico, Mag. Andrea Missinne, Dr. Kurt Guckelsberger, Art Chamber Experts Simone and Peter Huber, Tina-Maria Seyfried, Mag. G. and MD W. Rolshausen, DDr. Bernd Kromer, Dr. Carlo Pedretti, Archduke Dr. M.S. Habsburg-Lotheringen, Univ. Prof. Dr. Nick Kanas, Curator Martin Clayton, Univ. Prof. Dr. Andrea Bernardoni, Univ. Prof. Dr. Vincenso Pascucci, Univ. Skull Expert Prof. Dr. Rolando del Maestro, Curator MA Iris Metje, Dir. Dr. M. W. Kwakkelstein, Dr. Daniel Brownstein, Primarius Pr. Univ. Prof. Dr. H. Resch, Univ. Prof. Dr. Benjamin B. Olshin, Art Expert Peter Wachholz, MA Yasmin Koppen, Dr. Dietrich Seybold, Mag. Suzanne Leitner-Böchzelt, Dir. Univ. Prof. Dr. Donatella Lippi, Expert MD Francis C. Wells, Dir. Kim H. Veltman, MD Don Pezzutto, Univ. Prof. Dr. Kurt W. Becker, Dir. Dr. Wilfried Rosendahl, Univ. Prof. Dr. Walter Alvarez, Martina Ribechini, Dir. Dr. Luisa Ottolini, Claudia Mazzotti UCSB ScienceLine, Dr. Jane MacLaren Walsh, Dr. Vera Hammer, Dr. Michele Marincola, Dr. Armin Schlechter, Prof. Dr. Annibale Mottana, Prof. Dott. Vanni Gorni, Univ. Prof. Dr. Maurits Biesbrouck, Univ. Prof. Dr. Omer Steeno, Univ. Prof. Dir. Dr. Thomas Schnalke, Paola Mazzicchi, Curator Dott. Claudio Giorgione, Dott. Silvio Leydi and Dr. Beket Bukovinsá.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no actual or potential conflict of interest in relation to this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Wien 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent Leonardo da Vinci ResearchViennaAustria

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