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The discovery occurred when one of the Renaissance master's artworks was bombarded with a narrow beam of high-energy ions.
Presented at Ecaart 2007, an international conference running in Florence, Italy, until September 7, the study decodes for the first time Leonardo's painting technique.
Researchers at the Nuclear Techniques Laboratory for Cultural Heritage in Florence used a nuclear accelerator device that launches particles at high speed to determine the composition of the oil-on-wood painting Madonna of the Yarnwinder, completed in 1501.
"This non-destructive technology not only made it possible to identify pigments in the various paint layers, but also allowed us to decipher how Leonardo created his works. It was as if we were watching him while he painted," Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure restoration lab in Florence, told Discovery News.
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