The Search for Leonardo’s Genome
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In the end, my argument is that the search for the genome of Leonardo Da Vinci reveals many potential benefits of a more frequent marriage of new biology, in particular genomics and microbiology, with art, art history, and the conservation of cultural heritage. To begin, consider a trio of entertaining studies of the scandalous power of human genomics. In a large survey of parenthood conducted in the United Kingdom, in which parenthood was not in dispute, one in twenty-five fathers was not the biological parent. (Ref 1) In a similar survey in which parenthood was disputed, 30 percent of the fathers were not the biological parents. In a 2019 study conducted at the U.S.-Mexico border, 30 percent of those tested were genetically unrelated to the children they claimed as their own. (Ref 2) Biology can both end and begin mysteries.
Now consider the power of art as demonstrated by money. The global art market in 2021 was valued at approximately $65 billion. About 40 percent went through New York City, with Hong Kong the second art market capital, followed by London, Paris, and Geneva. Most of the demand is for postwar, contemporary, and modern art. Sales of Old Masters, such as Leonardo and others who worked in Europe before 1800, make up less than 5 percent.
Attribution and authentication are crucial matters for buyers, sellers, and intermediaries, including dealers and auction houses. Hundreds of years ago the art market invented blockchain, a fancy word for reliable provenance. Provenance and connoisseurship—intelligence without artificiality—establish identity in art markets.
Identity requires comparison – a reference and hopefully a match. The match can pair fingerprints, retinas, voices, faces, or other images or attributes. Natural history museums and botanical gardens preserve a so-called holotype, a single physical example of a reliably described organism, in a jar or drawer as a reference specimen against which to establish the identity of other specimens. Taxonomists build botany and zoology on such collections of plants and animals.