Leonardo’s Bones: Myth, History, and Evidence

DOI: 10.14673/HE201631018

Published in Human Evolution – Vol. 31 – n.3 – 2016

Key words: Leonardo da Vinci, Arsène Houssaye, Château d’Amboise, physical remains, archaeology, appearance,
self-portraits, sexuality, health.

A plaque declares the bones entombed in the chapel of Saint-Hubert, in the Château d’Amboise in the Loire Valley, to be the “presumed remains” of Leonardo da Vinci, who died in Amboise at the age of sixty-seven in 1519. The remains in the chapel were excavated nearby in 1863 by the novelist, art critic and impresario Arsène Houssaye. Even by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century, Houssaye’s protocols were short on science and strong on myth and wish fulfilment. Doubts about his methodology were raised soon after his discovery and supposed identification of the bones. The uncertainty endures, but scientific study of the remains could be expected either tentatively to confirm or to preclude altogether the possibility of their being those of Leonardo da Vinci. They could be expected to accord with certain known information about his diet, fitness, state of health, personal habits, places of residence, and physical appearance – ambiguous and inconclusive as the evidence sometimes appears. The remains might also be expected to exhibit several anomalies, including evidence of the chemicals and minerals to which his career as a painter and inventor exposed him, such as lead, arsenic, mercury, oxides of aluminium, zinc and manganese. Moreover, although his family on his father’s side came from Tuscany, information about his mother is much scarcer. One theory is that she was a slave, which means that her ethnic origin may have been in the North Caucasus region of present-day Russia, the area from which women were taken to Italy as slaves. If authentic and amenable to scientific investigation, the remains in Amboise might therefore be expected to reveal valuable information about an elusive and enigmatic figure.

King, R.
Art historian and writer,
Woodstock, Oxon, England.
E-mail: rking@link-connect.co.uk