It’s just a simple red chalk drawing of a bearded old man. Yet the curators of the Royal Library in Turin believed so strongly that it had magical powers, they hid it during World War II to keep it from falling into the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. What bearded old man could bestow such powers into his self-portrait and create this kind of novelistic conspiracy theory? Leonardo da Vinci, of course.
Da Vinci’s self-portrait is about to put on limited public display in Turin where it was returned intact from Rome after the war ended. The belief in its powers was so strong, the Royal Library’s director, Giovanni Saccani, says no one knows where exactly it was hidden.
To prevent the Nazis from taking it, an intelligence operation saw it transported in absolute anonymity to Rome.
What exactly could this mystical drawing do? It was believed that looking into da Vinci’s intense gaze would transfer enormous strength and power to the viewer. Because of this, it was the only item from the library’s vast da Vinci collection that was removed and guarded from the Nazis.
Da Vinci’s self-portrait was in fragile condition when it was taken and continued to deteriorate after its return. Since 1998, it has been kept in a secure underground vault at a constant 20 degrees Celsius and 55 percent humidity that has stopped the aging. Fifty people have been given permission to view the drawing over the next few weeks. The temperature of the vault will be lowered to counteract the body heat.
Does the drawing really have magic power? Some experts doubt it’s even of da Vinci since it is drawn in the style he used as a young artist but shows him as an old man. Many simply call it “Portrait of a man in red chalk.” Saccani has no doubt it’s real and has this to say about its powers:
It is a self-portrait… anyone who finds themselves standing in front of this drawing is struck dumb. The first thing they say when they recover is ‘this is giving me the shivers’. The expressive power of this face is absolutely connected to an emotion and an ability that only Leonardo could possess.
Students believe it too. Many stand in a room above the vault before a test to soak up a little of da Vinci’s genius.
Maybe Dan Brown should give it a try.