Boy knocks hole in 'million dollar painting'

August 25 2015

Video: via YouTube

Here's an odd story. In an art exhibition in Taiwan, a visiting boy has apparently tripped and punched a hole in a painting worth '$1.5m'. The painting is by 'the Italian master Paolo Porpora' (No - me neither). And I guess this is what happens if you put a trip hazard in front of an unglazed painting, and allow in people with drinks in their hand.

According to The Guardian, the CCTV footage above was 'released by the exhibition organisers'. Well, this is a curious thing. Normally, if you've organised an exhibition and something happens to a work of art under your watch, you don't publicise it. Things are different if there's a criminal case to prove, but in this case it was clearly an accident. And if you were the lender of a painting damaged like this, you absolutely would not want the news publicised.

But in this case, the 'exhibition' is not your usual art show. And the suspicion must be that the organisers have released the footage purely for publicity purposes. They even proudly showed off the damaged painting to the world's press (below). The story has appeared pretty much everywhere.

The exhibition is called 'The Face of Leonardo, Images of Genius'. You might wonder what a still life by a 17th Century artist is doing in an exhibition supposedly on Leonardo.

In fact, the exhibition is a mish mash of pictures apparently from the 15th Century to the 20th Century, of portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, almost all of which have nothing to do with Leonardo whatsoever. We're dealing here with an exhibition that has been marketed to the unsuspecting Taiwanese public as something to do with the greatest artist who ever lived. But which in fact contains nothing more serious than a modest Old Master auction view.

The central object, above, is a claimed self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci (above). As you can see below, it is the star of the show, and has a special case all to its own. Strangely, the picture proudly displays some damage - but this has not been done by a passing Chinese schoolboy. Rather, the damage (including a split in the panel, and a gash across the cheek) has been left there, perhaps in an apparent attempt to give the picture an air of antiquity.

For you have guessed right, dear AHNers; this picture is not by Leonardo (in my opinion). It is a later pastiche, probably based on a picture in the Uffizi which is also not by Leonardo, and certainly not early 16th Century. The picture being shown in Taiwan is something I wasn't aware of, but it's a classic case of how mis-applied science, and the misguided opinions of a few art historians can combine to 'annoint' a picture which is a copy into something with its own Wikipedia page, travelling exhibitions, visiting dignataries (here it is being admired by the Italian president), and paying crowds.

The 'Lucan' portrait, for that is what the picture is called, was apparently 'discovered' in 2008 'in a cupboard of a private house in Italy'. It has been put on display at something called the Museum of the Ancient People of Lucania (hence the tag 'Lucan'), and the picture was found and first declared a Leonardo by that museum's director Nicola Barbatelli. I would love to know who owns it. The people below seem to feature prominently in the painting's history online - Barbatellis is the chap in the beige jacket.

You can see more images of the picture here and here, and more on what apears to be the painting's website here. It's looks unlike a Renaissance work to me. It is doubtless the photos, but in some of them it almost looks as if the the back of the panel might have been aged with Ronseal*. The panel construction is extremely unusual - on th eback we see at the top and bottom two horizontal panels, but from the front of the painting it seems that there are other panels, with a diagonal join, in between the back and the paint surface. On the back of the panel are the words 'Pinxit Mea', written backwards - just like Leonardo!

Here are some other snippets from the Wikipedia page:

Carbon 14 dating gave 64% chance the wood of the panel dated between 1459 and 1523, making it contemporary with Leonardo, who was born in 1453 and died in 1519.

64% chance? Slam dunk.


The pigments were investigated using energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence analysis (ED-XRF) and were shown, in the unrestored areas, to be compatible in age with the panel and showed no trace of modern pigments in the unrestored areas,[8] however the feather was revealed to have been painted in a 'modern' titanium-based pigment not used in other parts of the painting.

And my favourite:

An analysis of the soft tissue of the face, applying methods used in facial surgery, was made by Prof. Felice Festa of the University of Chieti. The painted image was subject to detailed computer analysis and 3D imaging by Prof. Orest Kormashov, University of Tallinn, Estonia; Gianni Glinni, an engineer for the Museum of Antiche Genti di Lucania, and Helen Kokk, an expert in 3D graphic design. The recreated three-dimensional image was compared with other images believed to represent Leonardo da Vinci [...]

In 2010, there was a 'conference' to decide on the painting's authenticity, including such experts as:

David Bershad, Professor at University of Calgary (Canada), Peter Hohenstatt, Professor at the University of Parma, Felice Festa, Professor of Orthodontics and Gnathology at the University of Chieti, and Nicola Barbatelli, presented the findings in support of Barbatelli's attribution.

David Bershad is a real professor at Calgary. I'm surprised that a professor of art history at such a university thinks this picture is by Leonardo. Peter Hohenstatt appears to work for a company specialising in making museum cases. According to their site, he used to teach museography at the architecture school at the University of Parma. And so on. You'll struggle to find any widely accepted Leonardo scholars, or any major museums, giving an endorsement that this painting is by Leonardo. [Update - Uh oh - Carlo Pedretti has apparently said it's by Leonardo].

Why does all this matter? If the people of Taiwan want to go and see a show of pictures described as connected to Leonardo, but having little to do with him, so what? Well, to those of us who care about art, and the way it is presented, it's essential that people's exposure to exhibitions like this not be tainted with errors, over-blown claims, and downright disingenuity. I really want people in places like Taiwan to see and admire Renaissance paintings. But showing them later pastiches is wrong - isn't it? People of Taiwan - demand better!

You can see more photos of the exhibition here.

Update - I'm fascinated by this 'Lucan' portrait business. There are lots of photos of it online, which fall into the category of 'most curious'. Here is the picture arriving at an exhibition in the Czech Republic, under armed guard, and in a Samsonite suitcase.

Here is the picture being carefully unwrapped from the Samsonite suitecase. Note the white gloves.

Here, from a book on the painting, is a picture of the face without the damage visible.

Here is a close up of part of the damaged area of the face.

Normally, one would expect that the white area is 'fill' - that is, a filling put into a damaged area by a restorer before retouching begins. If that is the case, why leave a fill layer visible, but not re-touch it? If leaving the damage visible is your intention, for historical reasons perhaps, why not leave all the damage, pre-filling? If the white area is not fill, then what is it? I don't think you would expect to see such a bright 'ground layer' (the layer between the wooden panel and the paint layers) in a Renaissance painting. 

I'm also interested in finding out more about the Museo Delle Antiche Genti di Lucania, or the Museum of the Ancient People of Lucano, where Prof. Barbatelli is director of, and where the painting is on display. I can't find much at the moment, but here's something from Tripadvisor:

An authenticated self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci was found nearby and in return for permanently lending it to Naples University the university paid for this museum which is full of models of Leonardo's ideas.

Update II - a reader writes:

The thing that bothers me the most is the relative placement of the eyes. It's a jarring anatomical inaccuracy -- enough to make one seasick. Perhaps it is an exaggeration of the minor misplacement in the Morghen engraving.  Surely a sign of a poor copyist/forger rather than the greatest draftsman in history.

Another writes:

his non portrait of Leonardo shows a relatively young face with an full beard lacking any gray. The skin has an oily youthful sheen that was unlike his portraits and would be a dull pallor later in life.    Therefore the dating of wood and pigments would have to be from the first third of his life which is unlikely. Aside from that it just doesn't look like an austere  Renaissance painting of his early years.

And another:

I am no Leonardoso, but I think he would have painted better than that with his toes.

Update III - here's a video of the Lucan Museum. A star exhibit seems to be a recently found painting 'attributed to Verrocchio'. 

*All of this is just my opinion, litigious people please note.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.