By John Phillips

Rome - Researchers have discovered the hidden laboratory used by Leonardo Da Vinci for studies of flight and other pioneering scientific work in previously sealed rooms at a monastery next to the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, in the heart of Florence.

The workshop rooms, located between the Institute for Military Geography and the Basilica, include frescos on walls painted by Da Vinci that have "impressive resemblances" to other examples of his experimental work, including a tryptich of birds circling above a subsequently erased representation of the Virgin Mary that "constitutes a clear citation of the studies by the Maestro on the flight of birds", according to the three researchers, Alessandro Del Meglio, Roberto Manneschalchi and Maria Carchio.

An angel painted as standing at the side of the fresco scene bears a striking resemblance to the angel in an Annunciation attributed to Da Vinci in Florence's Uffizi Gallery.

Da Vinci's use of the rooms was referred to in letters written by Piero da Novellata to Isabella D'Este and they were cited by Giorgio Vasari in his 16th century biography, Lives of the Artists, they said.

"The finds are particularly interesting as they will help us to understand the context in which Leonardo was working in these rooms exactly 500 years ago," said Prof Alessandro Vezzosi, a prominent Da Vinci scholar.

The Tuscan-born scientist, painter, philosopher and poet was aged 51 when he returned to Florence in 1503 after many years in Milan, where he already had established his reputation and a period of extended travel.

The rooms he took in the 16th century were in a religious house run by monks from the order of the Servi di Maria, the Servants of Mary, but in a part of the monastery set aside for renting to lay people as guestrooms, the researchers added.

The discovery coincides with the opening in Rome on Tuesday of another major exhibit of 70 tables from Da Vinci's Codex Atalanticus, incorporating his visions of flying and other machines at Rome's Lincei Academy.

"This will be the only chance many people ever get to see the Codex," said the curator of the exhibition, Carlo Barbieri.

The tables on display are from the so-called Hoepli version of the Codex.

Academics from the 400-year-old Lincei spent 15 years copying a reproduction of the original that was published in 1904 by the Hoepli publishing house.

The exhibition displays Da Vinci's designs next to working models of his versions of machines and modern machines operating today.

There are models of Da Vinci's bicycle, his flying machine and his "car", driven by spiral springs contained within drums beneath the wagon, rather like a wind-up toy.

Most academics believe the loose car forerunner was created for the entertainment of nobles at a Renaissance celebration.

Some suggested it was designed at the request of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, possibly for use as a kind of mobile stand for a theatrical prop. - The Independent