Leonardo’s work has always been in demand. Following his training in Florence he moved to Milan, where he worked for the duke, Ludovico Sforza. After a brief spell as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, he returned to Florence. Then came a second period in Milan, a few years in Rome at the invitation of the pope and finally a summons by Francis I to France, where he died in 1519, aged 67. His reputation, already very high in his lifetime, continued to grow after his death, and he regularly appeared in lists of outstanding modern painters. The earliest published account of his life, in the first edition of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550), is largely devoted to comments about his personality, charm, extraordinary range of interests and, perhaps surprisingly today, his reluctance to concentrate on painting. Almost all this material was taken from various manuscript sources then circulating in Florence, but embellished in the retelling. Thus the statement about his death was enhanced by the claim that he died in the arms of Francis I, an episode that became an indispensable part of the Leonardo legend and was later depicted by Ingres. (Although Leonardo did indeed die at Amboise, Francis was not there at the time.) There is no clear indication that the author of the biographical account, the style of which is unlike that of Vasari himself, had actually seen any paintings by Leonardo, so it’s understandable that the comments about Leonardo’s influence on later artists are extremely vague. More surprising is the fact that no serious attempt seems to have been made by the author to consult people in Florence who had known Leonardo while he was working there, although this was done for other artists. As a consequence, many of the details provided about Leonardo’s life are demonstrably wrong.
The expanded biography published in the second edition of the Lives (1568) wasn’t much of an improvement. Vasari seems to have made some contribution, notably in adding references to drawings by Leonardo in his possession. He may also be the source for a brief passage about the unfinished Adoration of the Magi, now in the Uffizi. Although it was the most significant work by Leonardo in Florence, it had not been mentioned in the first edition. The 1568 Life had already been printed before Vasari went to Milan in 1566, and the only passage relating to Leonardo’s work that can be credited to him is the statement, later in the book, that Leonardo’s most famous painting, The Last Supper, was then only an ‘indistinct smudge’. It was already deteriorating by 1517, within twenty years of its completion. Leonardo was equally unfortunate with his other major wall painting, the Battle of Anghiari, for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. This was abandoned unfinished because of problems with the technique he had attempted, and the composition is known today only through copies.
None of the other works mentioned by Vasari were on public display at the time, except an altarpiece in Florence by Leonardo’s teacher, Verrocchio, in which Leonardo supposedly painted one angel, and most of them cannot be identified with any degree of certainty. As it happens, despite Leonardo’s fame his activity as a painter was largely mysterious. The one place where it was possible to see authentic pictures by him, other than the ruined Last Supper, was outside Italy, specifically in the French royal collection, which included five pictures acquired at different dates: the Mona Lisa, another female portrait, La Belle Ferronnière, Virgin and Child with St Anne, the first version of Virgin of the Rocks and St John the Baptist. A new insight into his activity was provided by the publication in 1651 of his so-called Treatise on Painting, a work produced after his death by combining different passages from his notebooks. Largely thanks to his fame the text was frequently republished, although it is open to question whether painters of the 17th and 18th centuries found much to interest them in the ideas of an artist born in 1452. Poussin, who provided illustrations to the first edition, is said to have remarked that everything of value in the book could be written in large letters on a single sheet of paper.
Given his celebrity, it isn’t surprising that in past centuries a very large number of paintings have been credited to Leonardo most of which have subsequently been eliminated from his oeuvre. The main source of increasing knowledge about him was his surviving notebooks and drawings, amounting to some five thousand pages, which gradually became available, and from various documents that are not always easy to interpret. The notebooks and drawings, which in their content and quantity are quite unlike the surviving body of work of any other Renaissance artist, confirmed much of what had been said about him in Vasari’s Lives: that he was interested in many things including anatomy, that he was an outstanding and innovative draughtsman, and that he was unable or unwilling to maintain a sustained involvement in the production of paintings.
Because only about a dozen surviving paintings are now generally accepted, the notebooks and drawings provide the main insight into his personality and development as an artist. But they also present formidable problems of dating, attribution and purpose, which are at the heart of Carmen Bambach’s massive and extraordinarily impressive scrutiny. For years she has devoted herself to the first-hand study of the drawings and the ways in which they reflect Leonardo’s preoccupations, especially as expressed in his notebooks. The book is in effect an examination of Leonardo’s entire career and thought, based principally but not exclusively on his drawings, and it illuminates every aspect of his achievement. But the evidence at Bambach’s disposal is so vast and miscellaneous and the problems that she discusses are so diverse and often so technical that it is not clear that a narrative approach is always the most effective. It isn’t easy for the reader to establish a coherent account of Leonardo’s changing interests in topics such as anatomy, optics or machinery, despite the fact that the information is there in the text. Her book, although too large for easy consultation, will be essential for any future account of Leonardo’s career, his artistic legacy and the evolution of his thought and drawing practice.
The Louvre is the only possible venue for an exhibition that was always going to be the major event of the fifth centenary of Leonardo’s death. The museum holds five of his paintings: no other institution can claim more than one. With loans of three other finished paintings, plus one unfinished picture and the National Gallery cartoon, as well as works closely related to him or possibly in small part by him, the exhibition provides an unmatched opportunity to appreciate his achievement as a painter. But inevitably the bulk of the show consists of his drawings, including many of the most famous, lent by collections all over the world. And for those paintings that have not been sent, and for some of those that are included, full-size infrared reflectograms have been used, which provide much information about the way he worked. There is also an outstanding selection of the surviving notebooks, or in some cases pages from them. But his scientific and mechanical investigations, which do not lend themselves well to an exhibition, are not unduly emphasised. The focus is on Leonardo the artist, and in particular on his mastery of drawing where his ideas seem to have been given visual form with effortless fluency beyond the reach of any of his predecessors.
The most striking absence is the Salvator Mundi, bought in 2005 for $1175, when it was described as a copy, and sold in 2017 for $450 million as a Leonardo. Its present location is not known for certain, but it is said to belong to Mohammed bin Salman. The process, probably without parallel in the history of art, by which a painting first recorded for certain around 1900 in the collection of Sir Francis Cook, when it was not regarded as of any particular merit, acquired its astonishing price tag in only 12 years is told in absorbing detail by Ben Lewis. The key moment in this history of the painting was its inclusion in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan held at the National Gallery in late 2011. There was no reference to it in the gallery’s main press releases in May and July 2011, but it was mentioned and reproduced in a brief press statement of 13 July 2011:
Leonardo is known to have painted the Salvator Mundi – an image of Christ holding a globe, with his right hand raised in blessing. The version in a private collection in New York was shown after cleaning to the director of the National Gallery and to the curator of the exhibition as well as to other scholars in the field. We felt that it would be of great interest to include this painting in the exhibition as a new discovery. It will be presented as the work of Leonardo, and this will obviously be an important opportunity to test this new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardo’s. A separate press release on the Salvator Mundi is issued by the owner.
There are two odd features about this statement. The first is the claim that Leonardo ‘is known to have painted the Salvator Mundi’. He certainly produced drawings of details of costume that were used in other paintings of the subject, but it doesn’t follow that he did so himself. There are other instances in which known pictures on his design are certainly not entirely autograph, although it is often supposed, not necessarily correctly, that he contributed to them, and this possibility was pointed out in the catalogue of the National Gallery exhibition. And if the attribution of the version displayed needed to be tested, why was it being exhibited as the work of Leonardo? In the catalogue none of the scholars to whom the picture had been shown was identified and their views were not reported, yet no reservations were expressed about the attribution.
One of the two owners identified at the time, an art dealer named Robert Simon, did produce a press release before the exhibition opened, ‘summarising the ownership, critical and conservation history of the painting’, as he now puts it. In this he rather coyly stated that the picture was ‘privately owned and not for sale’ and that in 2005 it had been ‘brought to [him] for study and research’. In fact, he had bought it at auction with another dealer, Alex Parish, evidently as an investment (but he alone was named as owner in the provenance of the picture given by Christie’s in 2017); and already in June 2011 it had been reported that the picture ‘belongs to a group of Old Master dealers, including Robert Simon’. Simon listed about a dozen art historians who had seen the picture and stated that ‘the study and examination of the painting by these scholars resulted in an unequivocal consensus that the Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo, and that it is the single original painting from which the many copies and versions depend. Individual opinions vary slightly in the matter of dating.’ Simon did not explain why he, rather than the National Gallery, which had consulted the various scholars in the first place, had issued the press release, especially given that the picture was supposedly not for sale, nor why he provided a PR contact (who, it seems, now works for Harry and Meghan). According to Lewis, Simon and Parish began to look for buyers soon after the exhibition closed.
Lewis interviewed the five external scholars consulted by the National Gallery in 2008, all of whom figured in Simon’s list. According to him, two supported the attribution, two didn’t commit themselves and one (Bambach) rejected it, while suggesting that Leonardo retouched some passages. No consensus, one might think. But Lewis’s account has been challenged by Simon in a letter to the TLS of 4 October 2019, in which he said that he had sent a draft release to those who had attended the 2008 meeting, and all of them had approved it. Unfortunately, he did not specify whether the text of the draft release corresponded to the final one. Not that it greatly matters. Not only had Simon persuaded the National Gallery to display his picture, even before it went on show he had told the press that the gallery’s experts had endorsed the attribution. His press release was at the heart of the case Christie’s made for the painting in its sale catalogue, along with the National Gallery’s unqualified endorsement of the attribution.
Simon, and later Christie’s, did not explain what evidence, notably about the restoration history and supposed provenance of the picture, was available to the scholars who had given an opinion or how they had dealt with such evidence. This approach is common enough in the art trade, in which attributions are often based on little more than the views of art historians. Many of those who specialise in making such attributions have great confidence in their own judgment, even when this has proved fallible, and they tend to discount or give a tendentious spin to documentary evidence and information about provenance that does not fit with their theories. But it is not necessarily possible to establish who painted a now very damaged picture half a millennium ago simply by looking at it on an easel, especially if it has been extensively restored. While a specialised knowledge of Leonardo’s drawings and of the content of his notebooks is required for the kind of connoisseurship displayed in Bambach’s book, it is not so clear that art historians are uniquely qualified to make judgments about his paintings, let alone about one that does not in the least resemble his generally accepted works. These are all in public institutions; it doesn’t take a great deal of commitment to become familiar with them and excellent reproductions are readily available. But why is a deep familiarity with Leonardo’s ideas more relevant to reaching the kinds of judgment required to assess the Salvator Mundi than the expertise of, say, a trained artist? As it happens, only one of the Leonardo specialists who have written about the picture (not one of those consulted by the National Gallery) has commented on the fact that Christ’s eyes are not at the same level, a basic error one would not expect to find in a painting by Leonardo. Many art historians seem to believe that artistic training is irrelevant to the practice of connoisseurship, but this attitude merely facilitates the activity of forgers. The knowledge that the art historian can contribute is of a different kind, involving issues such as the study of provenance and familiarity with the available information about the work of Leonardo’s assistants and followers.
The Salvator Mundi from the Cook collection does not altogether fit Simon’s assertion that Leonardo painted a picture of the subject that then inspired others. None of the other 11 or so versions has a colour scheme that is remotely comparable to it, and several of them also differ in this respect from one another. In some the composition extends further to the right, but the Cook picture has not been cut down on that side. And in only one other is Christ’s drapery visible without distortion through the crystal orb in his left hand, as it is in the Cook picture. This is a work now in Naples, which was used as the basis for restoring this area in the Cook picture, but the drapery already looked much the same when it was first recorded. As his notebooks show, Leonardo was interested in refraction, and would have been well aware that drapery seen through a solid transparent sphere could never be without distortion. Martin Kemp tried to explain this anomaly on the grounds that Leonardo was observing the principle of decorum: just as artists didn’t show refraction of Christ’s legs in water in paintings of his baptism, so too Leonardo avoided it here. The argument seems very far-fetched, and does not account for the fact that in virtually all the other known versions of the composition the sphere is shown in a more convincing way. In short, the differences between the various versions are not obviously consistent with the idea that they were based on a painting by Leonardo. It seems more likely that they were based on a cartoon after his design, especially as there is no evidence of a print before 1650. There is no clear indication from the 16th century of the existence of a picture of the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo himself, and it is rather surprising that he should have made one given that his other works do not suggest that he would have been interested in producing something in which the principal figure is entirely static and frontal, as well as lacking any kind of characterisation. The related drawings are generally thought to date from some time after 1500 – that is to say, from a period in which he was able to pick and choose what he painted.
The picture itself is a ruin, with the face much restored to make it reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, and the main arguments for Leonardo’s involvement in its execution as well as its design rest on the supposed excellence of the least damaged parts, namely Christ’s right hand, some of the pattern on his costume and the lower section of the crystal sphere. But is it realistic to suppose that art historians in the 21st century can be sure that these sections are by Leonardo himself, rather than by some skilled assistant? To paint them no invention was required, merely manual skill of a high order, and an attribution made largely on the basis of these passages alone can hardly be taken seriously. It is also significant that no compelling visual comparisons have been provided between these passages and those either in paintings by Leonardo himself or in works by his closest followers.
Until now the most substantial published discussion of the Salvator Mundi is by Lewis. The new book by Margaret Dalivalle, Martin Kemp and Robert Simon – the leading figure in the process by which the Salvator Mundi was accepted as a work by Leonardo – seems to have been the one announced as forthcoming with Yale University Press in 2011. Although Kemp was not mentioned at that time in connection with the picture, according to Lewis he was entirely convinced about the attribution when consulted by the National Gallery in 2008; he also saw the picture in New York later that year. Of all the experts involved, he has the broadest conception of what a work by Leonardo might look like, and at just that period he was attempting, although with very limited success, to persuade others that Leonardo was responsible for a portrait on vellum known as La Bella Principessa which most other Leonardo specialists consider a modern forgery or a 19th-century pastiche.
The Yale project was cancelled ‘due to a change in editorial policy’. In 2017 Oxford University Press reported that they would publish the book in 2018, and it finally appeared last November. The reason for the long gestation has not been explained, but may reflect an attempt to clarify the provenance of the painting. The claim in the blurb that this is ‘the definitive study on the rediscovered da Vinci masterpiece’ is excessive. There is no systematic discussion of the many versions of the subject from the circle of Leonardo, the account of the restoration of the picture is cursory and incomplete, and there is no real attempt to lay out the evidence in a clear and comprehensive way, allowing the reader to decide on the issues involved. It is more a piece of advocacy than objective scholarship, and in this respect contrasts with Lewis’s much more readable and informative study. Unexpectedly in a book published by Oxford, the treatment of primary sources is inconsistent and unsatisfactory; they are sometimes given only in translation and sometimes with garbled transcriptions.
The most substantial section of the book is a study on the provenance by Margaret Dalivalle. She had originally proposed that the picture had belonged to Charles I and had been acquired for £30 – a rather low sum – by a certain John Stone after the execution of the king in 1649, when it was described as ‘a peece of Christ done by Leonardo’. This fitted with an earlier theory that a Salvator Mundi by Leonardo had entered the English royal collection via Charles’s French wife, Henrietta Maria. Given the presence in France of various paintings by Leonardo this did not seem implausible. However, there is no supporting evidence for the theory. Dalivalle has now shown that Stone’s picture was recovered by Charles II in 1660, and in 1666 was called ‘Our Saviour with a globe in one hand and holding up the other’; it then disappeared from view. Lewis has pointed out that in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow there is a painting by a follower of Leonardo showing an adolescent Christ holding a globe and raising his other hand. The brand on the back of the panel indicates that it came from the collection of Charles I. Dalivalle points out that there was another picture by Leonardo recorded in the same collection, described either as ‘A lords figure. In halfe’ or ‘Christ en bust’. She suggests that these two pictures could have been the one in the Pushkin and the Salvator Mundi. But the evidence is hardly compelling. There is little reason to suppose that the Salvator Mundi was ever in the royal collection. It may not even have been in England in the 17th century. Wenceslaus Hollar’s print of 1650, which has similar drapery – a strong indication that it was based on the Cook picture – was published in Antwerp, and there is no good reason to suppose that he copied the picture in England and then returned to Antwerp, as Dalivalle seems to propose.
It is hard not to be impressed by the skill with which Simon promoted his picture, or not to be dismayed by the way in which the National Gallery found itself involved and even exploited. When such an institution, financed out of public money, chooses to exhibit a previously unknown work with an unqualified attribution to Leonardo, the public is entitled to know the evidence on which that attribution was based. Otherwise, it is more a marketing ploy than a contribution to knowledge. But the evidence that was provided included misleading or unsubstantiated assertions about the provenance of the picture and a public statement by the then owner. The trustees urgently need to consider their policy about loans of this kind, preferably before the forthcoming Titian exhibition. As for the current owner, he and his advisers evidently did not carry out due diligence before making their purchase, but it can be hazardous not to do so when such huge sums are at stake and when art historians and the art market generally are so free with their opinions and so astute in their marketing.