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ROME (Reuters) - A sketch obscured by handwriting for five centuries in one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks may be a youthful self-portrait, according to Italian experts who "aged" the sketch to compare to confirmed later self-portraits.
Hidden under layers of thick writing on a page of the "Codex on the Flight of Birds," the sketch was spotted by the Italian scientific journalist Piero Angela, who will present images of his discovery on Italian state television RAI on Saturday.
Studying a high quality facsimile of the codex, Angela first detected the faint form of a nose behind the heavy black text of the codex's tenth page, he told a news conference Friday.
He enlisted the help of art historians, police forensic experts and RAI's graphic department to turn the black text covering the sketch white, then the same tone as the paper.
Over months of micro-pixel work, graphic designer Giovanni Stillitano gradually "removed" the text and revealed the drawing underneath. What emerged was the face of a young to middle-aged man with long hair, a short beard and a penetrating gaze.
The features were first compared to all known portraits and sketches of young men by Leonardo, but no match was found.
Then, struck by similarities to a famed self-portrait of Leonardo in advanced age from around 1512, a work in red chalk on paper and housed in Turin's Biblioteca Reale, Angela wondered whether it might not be a new, younger Leonardo self-portrait.
Criminal investigation techniques were used to digitally correlated the sketch with the known portrait and "age" it with facial reconfiguration technology, sinking the cheeks, hollowing the eyes and furrowing the brow.
The police experts found the two images compatible "to such an extent that we may regard the hypothesis that the images portray the same person as reasonable." The results were validated by a plastic surgeon, Giuseppe Leopizzi, and then double-checked via a digital face-lift to rejuvenate the older self-portrait.
Wrinkles removed, eyes brightened, the younger version of the established older self-portrait was superimposed on the newly discovered sketch and found to be almost identical.
"To uncover a new Leonardo drawing in itself was astonishing," Angela said.
"When I actually tried to age the face, and to put the hair and the beard of the famous self-portrait around it, a shiver ran down my spine. It resembled Leonardo like a twin brother."
Leonardo expert Carlo Pedretti at California University described the sketch as "one of the most important acquisitions in the study of Leonardo, in the study of his image, and in the study of his thought too."
Additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Alessandra Molinari; Editing by Louise Ireland and Stephen Brown