The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting by Ben Lewis
I received a review copy of this from the publisher Random House Publishing through LibraryThing. Mr. Lewis quotes the finder of the lost piece, Robert Simon: “Leonardo has been my deity for most of my life – and I am not alone.” Well, I don’t have deities, but Leonardo da Vinci has always been a subject of high fascination for me. Still, I like that perspective. And it anchors points Lewis makes on Simon being primed for the Salvator Mundi to be a Leonardo work. I say primed because Mr. Lewis painstakingly establishes his case for an asterisk, or as he says, a “question mark”. [Of some significance to what follows, I finished a review/observation last night after 45 minutes of writing…only to have it all vaporize into the ether when I clicked “Post”…lost to the new Goodreads feature of saving unfinished reviews, and unlike this painting…to never be found again. I share this for my own cognitive prosthetic use, for any others using this feature, and as a tendered apology to the author because all of my previous thought invested is gone and this is a shadow. So here are new thoughts; and different thoughts…sigh…]
Lewis has written here of an incredible, exhaustive piece of detective work, and unless you are in this world of extreme auctions, famous/infamous/lost art, Old Masters, collectors, etc., you may learn something about appraisals, provenance and attribution, art history, background history, restoration, forensic analysis, auctions and sales. I did. For example, the walnut wood on which the subject Salvator Mundi was painted has “been scientifically analyzed and shown to have come from the same tree ” as the wood on which two other Milanese paintings were done. Lewis treats the consulting investigators and historians, the restorer, even the purchasers with fairness: he provides the pedigrees, accomplishments and accolades giving proper credit for the expertise, and also calls out where he sees flaws, misses, and biases…but not without also providing his justification for his assessments. Lewis examines the history of the painting (as best can be determined) and he also looks at the histories of the times from which the histories are claimed. Details about the research of provenence, the origin of a work, details about restoration, details and histories of what is known of Leonardo and his studio and students, Lewis’s book is comprehensive and my comments and observations do it little justice (especially the second time through!)
Martin Kemp is the academic art historian Simon enlisted to examine the painting for style, technique, to research its possible origins. Kemp has serious cred and Lewis quotes him on Leonardo:
Those authors who have written that Leonardo began by studying things as an artist but increasingly investigated things for their own sakes have missed the point entirely. What should be said is that he increasingly investigated each thing for each other’s sake, for the sake of the whole and for the sake of the inner unity, which he perceived both intuitively and consciously. In moving from church architecture to anatomy, from harmonic proportions to mechanics, he was not leaping erratically from one separate branch to another, like a frenzied squirrel, but climbing up different branches of the same tree.
Lewis cites Kemp’s conclusions on the authenticity, and questions some of Kemp’s explanations for the “unLeonardo-like” aspects. He calls out “shortcomings in Kemp’s analysis.” There are problems with Leonardo’s approach to the orb in the picture, and there are problems with the depth of field. Lewis says it “is a great mystery why a painting by an artist who studied optics, perspective, and light with such intensity should contain two glaring optical inconsistencies.” He continues with something that Kemp and seemingly all other historians missed: in every other Italian Renaissance depiction, Jesus wears a two color garment, but in this one, the Salvator is wearing a single, blue, garment.
In establishing provenence, Simon turned to Margaret Dalivalle, recommended by Kemp. Ms. Dalivalle also has a tremendous pedigree and spent years on her research of this painting. Lewis points out, and supports, problems he has with her conclusions. He also notes Ms. Dalivalle’s defensiveness with the understanding of her investment in the outcome (she had an eight year written book coming out.)
Dianne Modestini is the artist who performed the restoration of the piece. Restoration is not without controversy. I’ll share something I learned from Dr. Robert Greenberg that relates: we can be grateful for Rimsky-Korsakov restoring Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, rescuing the scattered manuscript from a jumbled mess of paper, but in the process, R-K felt the need to fix what he perceived as Mussorgsky’s raw uncultured original. In the case of the Salvator Mundi, it wasn’t a normally complex case of removing other restoration attempts, and years of grime and additional varnishes. So much was so damaged that Ms. Modestini had to restore elements that weren’t there. Giant scores, broken wood, totally removed original paint… How much is original, intended original, deduced intended original or her own is a controversy of its own. And difficult to fathom, some critical photographs of the restoration stages seem to be nonexistent, adding to the controversy.
I’m throwing in the towel…too many distraction to recover my original thoughts but I’ll add a point Lewis makes about the Salvator Mundi: “If the greatest artist of his time was painting the greatest subject in Christian art, a Salvator Mundi, one would expect to find it recorded in a note in a monk’s chronicle or a secretary’s letters, at the very least. The absence of such documentation is the first great mystery of the Salvator Mundi.” This is important because, Lewis continues, the “name of the artist and the date of the execution of this painting can only be determined by analysis of the style, technique, and motifs of the work, but the result of such a process will always lack the certainty of proof.” And this is the crux. It is going to be speculation unless the convergence of evidence is so overwhelmingly incontrovertible and confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent (to borrow from Stephen Jay Gould.)
I’d like to think the Salvator Mundi is a Leonardo. Read it and form your own opinion.
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