Monthly Archives: November 2019

The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting by Ben Lewis

The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive PaintingThe 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!)

Some snippets…

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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The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American InnovationThe Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is highly recommended for a technology geek, history geek, history of technology geek, anyone interested in technological innovation, or just plain Ma Bell fans.

Mr. Gertner has amassed an excellent, in-depth (depth as in really deep), coverage of the phenomena that was Bell Labs. He’s captured the development, processes, inventions, personalities – the egos, the drives, the vanities and intellects, the senses of humor (Jim Fisk “was fond of putting his colleagues on mailing lists of doctors peddling dubious tonics.” !!) He writes with a literary description (“- men in crisp white shirts, sleeves rolled above their elbows, bent over rows and rows of drafting tables.”) And, something I find quite refreshing, given this has to have elements of creative non-fiction (facts are dull…narrative gives them life):

One afternoon, Mervin Kelly invited [Walter] Brattain over to his home in Short Hills to discuss the matter [Brattain’s displeasure with William Schockley]. They likely met in Kelly’s study, where he saw all his visitors – […]

My emphasis added, that is the way to write about unknown information!

So much information here, and insights into what Bell Labs was and created. Not all inventions, the processes that worked their way to the world:

[Jack A.] Morton would eventually think more deeply about the innovative process than any Bell Labs scientist, with the possible exception of Kelly, In his view, innovation was not a simple action but a “total process” of interrelated parts. “It is not just the discovery of new phenomena, nor the development of a new product or manufacturing technique, nor the creation of a new market, ” he later wrote. “Rather, the process is all these things acting together in an integrated way toward a common industrial goal.”

Holistic innovation. What a novel concept.

Gertner writes of the demise, that Bell Labs “ceased being essential to America’s technology and culture.” Sad that, for an institution that created the transistor – arguably the most significant invention ever, the integrated circuit, solar cells, lasers, and a host of other common place today innovations, an institution that reinvented itself many times, finally succumbed.

Excellent history.

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Legacy by Michelle E. Lowe

LegacyLegacy by Michelle E. Lowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an electronic review copy of this from the publisher through Book Sirens in exchange for a review. Disclosure: I like visual steampunk – creations of a largely amateur following (though there are some that are quite professional in their imagining), and haven’t been too moved by movies or shows that purport to be steampunk. I’ve listened to and acquired some of a taste for the aural incarnations of genre. What I find lacking is written forms that I can enjoy. So I requested this because the description called it “An unforgettable steampunk fantasy novel set in Victorian England.” Well… I must have missed something because there were only slight hints at steampunk. Fantasy? Yes. Steampunk? Not really.

I did not know this was published in 2016, but that’s the copyright on my review copy, though on Goodreads, there is a note of “first published March 16th 2015”. When I logged it, I saw “The Legacy #1”. Turns out there are five more in the series (so far?) This is good because I found this one to be a little light. Light on the fantasy, though better than average on the story. And I thought it was light on development and backstory. At times it seemed as though I’d missed a first book, but that would be this, so that wasn’t it. [As a rule, I don’t like to summarize fiction in my reviews because I don’t want to spoil for any potential reader. There are usually plenty of plot summaries out there is one is so inclined.] The villain is over the top without that backstory, and the fantasy elements are few. Some are so vague – I expect those to be resolved in the sequels, but if a reader didn’t want to continue? There was a surprise that was completely unanticipated…I’ll leave it for the reader to learn when it appears.

[Edit: I forgot to mention…]…there are some alternate history items that are interesting to me. Enough said there.

So…not what I expected, not as advertised (I do not know if that was publisher blurb or some reviewer who really doesn’t know steampunk), but intriguing and engaging enough that I will check out the next. I appreciate the opportunity to review.

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