Move along folks, nothing to see here...
October 4 2013
Picture: Die Welt
How do you get a story in practically every paper in the world, with little or no effort? Easy, mention the words 'Leonardo', 'discovery' and 'expert' in the same press release. Hey presto, global media attention. The writer Fiona McLaren got wide coverage last year for claiming that she owned Leonardo's 'last commission'. She doesn't, but she's still going great guns with the idea, as this lecture at the University of Dundee shows.
Anyway, the latest claim is the above portrait, of Isabella D'Este, which relates to the known Leonardo drawing in the Louvre. I find it hard to believe that it is by the greatest painter that ever lived, judging by the photo. I know it's dangerous to speculate from images, but AHN-ers don't like it when I sit on the fence. The drapery is really feeble. And did the same artist who painted the sublime hand in The Lady with an Ermine really paint that limp and formless thing above? I doubt it. But Leonardo 'expert' Carlo Pedretti has said he did. From The Guardian:
"There are no doubts that the portrait is Leonardo's work," said Carlo Pedretti, an emeritus professor of art history at the University of California.
If acknowledged as genuine – and if experts concur it was painted before the Mona Lisa – the portrait could shake up academic studies of one of the world's most famous painting.
The 61cm by 46.5cm portrait, which uses the same pigment in the paint and the same primer used by Leonardo, is the completed version of a sketch he made of D'Este, which, like the Mona Lisa, hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
The unnamed family which owns the portrait, and asked for it to be analysed, has kept a collection of about 400 paintings in Turgi, Switzerland since the start of the 20th century, reported the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
It's painted with old paint, on old primer - so it must be by Leonardo, right? Or might there have been thousands of artists around at that time who happened to use contemporary paints and techniques?
Regular readers will remember the most recent Pedretti blessing, for the so-called Isleworth Madonna, which just isn't, not in a million years, by Leonardo (as the highly respected Leonardo scholar Prof. Martin Kemp has vainly tried to point out). Pedretti was also involved in that weird 'Leonardo sculpture' business I mentioned last year. You'd think by now that the press would be wary of people claiming to discover Leonardos without amassing a proper consensus among Leonardo scholars. But on it goes.
Update - The Telegraph has spoken to Martin Kemp:
Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Trinity College, Oxford, and one of the world’s foremost experts on da Vinci, said if the find was authenticated it would be worth “tens of millions of pounds” because there are only 15 to 20 genuine da Vinci works in the world.
But he raised doubts about whether the painting was really the work of Leonardo. The portrait found in Switzerland is painted on canvas, whereas Leonardo favoured wooden boards.
“Canvas was not used by Leonardo or anyone in his production line,” Prof Kemp told The Daily Telegraph. “Although with Leonardo, the one thing I have learnt is never to be surprised.”
There are further doubts – Leonardo gave away his original sketch to the marquesa, so he would not have been able to refer to it later in order to paint a full oil version.
“You can’t rule out the possibility but it seems unlikely,” Prof Kemp said. It was more likely to have been produced by one of the many artists operating in northern Italy who copied Leonardo’s works.
Update II - Professor Kemp has further written on his blog:
Another promotion of a non-Leonardo, pushed by the Corriere della Serra, which has been a great newspaper. I was contacted by someone called [...]* - not, apparently, an accredited arts journalist. I declined to express a visual opinion on the basis of the poor reproductions I had seen but made it clear that any attribution to Leonardo was not consistent with the documentation. The result is that I am implicitly cited as a supporter of the attribution. I will be asking for a retraction.
Having looked further at this, it is clear that the painting cannot be by Leonardo, on the basis of the documented account of Leonardo's relations with Isabella d'Este and his evident failure to paint her portrait.
Update III - a reader writes:
These "Leonardo" discoveries are getting quite tedious as you rightly point out. What is even more annoying is the unreflective acceptance by people and organizations that really should know better. Today, I found it on the TEFAF [The European Fine Art Fair] facebook-page. They are not really helping critical thinking, are they?
I wonder what this tells us about Tefaf vetting.
Update IV - TEFAF gets in touch to tell us:
We believe it's always a good thing to be very critical regarding the authenticity of a piece of art. TEFAF Maastricht is unrivalled in its standards and the methods it applies to establish the authenticity, quality and condition of every painting and object on sale at the fair. Without any exception a TEFAF vetting committee consists of several experts rather than one. By sharing news about (proclaimed) discoveries on our facebook page we hope to enable the discussion amongst our friends. Feel free to participate, we value your thoughts. We are excited to have this discussion and remain curious what further examination will teach us.
* Bizarrely, I got a letter from an Italian lawyer asking me to remove the name the Prof. Kemp had mentioned.