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Image: Da Vinci workshop
Olycom  /  Sipa Press file
The workshop where Leonardo da Vinci first met and may have begun painting the woman he immortalized as the Mona Lisa has been discovered in a military college. A team of restorers found the rooms behind a hidden door leading into the complex where Leonardo stayed in 1500.
updated 1/31/2005 2:11:54 PM ET 2005-01-31T19:11:54

Could it be a da Vinci code of sorts? Fading frescoes in forgotten rooms of a convent where Leonardo da Vinci may have sojourned are being studied to see if they have the Renaissance master’s touch or that of his pupils.

But experts say it’s too early to say if the art world has made a stunning discovery.

With Dan Brown’s best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code” sparking interest in the mysteries of the artist’s life, a hypothesis by researchers in Florence that the rooms served as a studio for Leonardo and his pupils has grabbed the imaginations of many. If they worked in the convent, might not they have done the frescoes, including one depicting birds — a motif that tickled Leonardo’s fancy?

“I don’t think it’s a very convincing story yet, and there is no real evidence,” said James Beck, an art history professor at Columbia University. “It’s really in an early stage of research.”

Video: Da Vinci discovery analysis The rooms, which aren’t open to the public, are on the upper floors of a what was a convent in 1500-1503, when, some believe, Leonardo lodged there. Santissima Annunziata Monastery is now occupied partially by the Institute of Military Geography, some of whose researchers were intrigued by the rooms.

Those who think there’s a good chance Leonardo might have painted in the rooms cite Giorgio Vasari’s account that the convent let the artist stay there for free.

Skeptics point out that Vasari’s lively biographies of Renaissance artists were written decades after the years Leonardo was said to have stayed at the convent.

The birds in flight could have been done by Leonardo’s school, Alessandro Vezzosi, director of a Leonardo museum near Florence, said Friday.

“The researchers made the hypothesis that these were the rooms where Leonardo and his pupils worked,” said Vezzosi, the curator of a recent exhibition on Leonardo who helped present the results of the research.

Vezzosi said Leonardo could have conceived or completed an early version of the Mona Lisa in the workshop, since the family of the probable subject of the painting, Lisa Gherardini, had links to the monastery.

Leonardo arrived in Florence in 1500 and likely stayed in the rooms, Vezzosi said.

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For some reason, the frescoes on the rooms’ walls hadn’t been studied carefully.

“For the first time in this case, we see birds which are absolutely dynamic, animals which are absolutely vivid and remind us of the study done by Leonardo of birds in flight,” said researcher Roberto Manescalchi.

But art historians were quick to point out that contemporaries and predecessors of Leonardo also often depicted birds.

“There’s nothing about these bird studies that are unique at that date,” said Colin Eisler, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. “A hundred years before, there were extraordinarily naturalistic bird studies.”

While hastening to note he has not seen the frescoes, Eisler said their discovery appeared to be “not complete eye openers.”

Also in the rooms is an outline of a kneeling angel similar to Leonardo’s Annunciation, which hangs in Florence’s Uffizi gallery.

Another clue to those seeking some code to help read the Florence frescoes could be the discovery in the convent of frescoes of animals attributed to Vittorio da Feltre. Vasari wrote that da Feltre came to the city in the early 1500s to visit Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Beck said convent archives would have to be examined to see if there’s evidence, like receipts or a letter, that Leonardo stayed or worked there.

“Leonardo’s name now is so electric,” the Columbia University professor said, referring to the frenzy over “The Da Vinci Code.” But he cautioned that many tantalizing finds in the art history world soon fizzle.

Last fall, restoration specialists in the Umbrian town of Gubbio said they found a signature under years of grime on a religious banner which appeared to that of Raphael when he was in his mid-teens. But Beck said there already was skepticism in the art world over that hypothesis.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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