Leonardo Superstar

Prof. Univ. Dr. Dr. HC Jan DE MAERE

I cannot write about the strange medieval-renaissance construction of the royal castle of Amboise and the neighboring Clos Lucé castle without mentioning his latest inhabitant and co-proprietor, my late friend Gonzague Saint Bris (1948-2017).

Gonzague was an award-winning (2002 Prix Interallié) French novelist, biographer and journalist. Passionate as he was, he viewed history as a ongoing drama animated by sex, lust, greed and power hunger. His family owns and lives in the Clos Lucé, built by Hughes d’Amboise in 1450 and confiscated in 1490 by French King Charles VII for his wife Anne de Bretagne. In Leonardo’s time it was owned by King François I and called ‘Chateau de Cloux’. Thirteen years old, he was offered by his father the room where Leonardo (Vinci 1452 – Amboise 1519) spent 3 years. Gonzague died in a car accident, his girlfriend avoiding a fox at night on the roads of the Calvados department. In 2015, following the footsteps of Leonardo (63 years old) five hundred years later, dressed as the master, starting from Rome, passing through the Val d’Aosta, he conquered the Alps on a mule. He passed the col du Bonhomme and the ancient Roman road of Notre Dame de la Gorge (Mont Blanc), filming himself with a drone (culturedrone@orange.fr). He carried the same luggage and copies of the three paintings in leather bags as Leonardo did on his trip to Amboise (La Gioconda, Saint John and Saint Ann). Another friend, the Belgian strip author Bernard Swysen, turned Gonzague’s journey over the Alps into a comic strip.

The Amboise castle is built on a protruding roc dominating the Loire river. Two stunning cavalier staircases allow access to the lower town of Amboise. Charles VII remodeled it in French Gothic Flamboyant style and after 1495 in early Italian Renaissance style. It was the favorite castle of François I and his 27 mistresses. It is said to be connected by an underground passage to the Clos Lucé. There, on May 2nd 1519, the Universal Renaissance Genius of unquenchable curiosity died. But not, as the Florentine art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote, in the arms of François I, who was at that time in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, celebrating the birth of his second son. There, count Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s collaborator, principal heir and executor of his estate, announced this to the king. In accordance with his will, sixty beggars followed Leonardo’s casket. He was buried in the Saint-Florentin convent’s chapel in Amboise. Leonardo was 64 when he arrived at Clos Lucé. Surrounded by his pupils, he drew a project for Romorantin as an ideal city. It was never realized, as most of his projects.

Not far from there, the royal castle of Chambord, dynamically managed by its director Jean d’Haussonville, exhibits until September first some sheets of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus in an exhibition called “L’Utopie à l’oeuvre”. At his death, this homo universalis left 13.000 sheets of notes and drawings, all executed in left-handed mirror writing. Half of this treasure is still extant. Unable to master other languages including Latin, the then universal humanist language, he wrote in Tuscan dialect. As a polymath, he integrated brilliantly art, science and imagination in his personal empirical experiences: thousands of studies, projects, engineering, architecture, geology, astronomy, botany, ideas, literature, imaginary travels and even a bestiary. His thoughts on the nature of painting, the pinnacle of all arts, is a precious legacy, giving insight in his creation. Since there were Tuscan translations available, he read Plinius the Elder, Vergilius, Ovidius and Aesopus. He did not think high of the authors of his time, he coined most of them ‘toilet-fillers’. The scope and depth of the feverish imagination of this remote genius is still not fully explored today. Many mysteries remain.

Born as an illegitimate child on 15 April 1452 ‘at the third hour of the night’ in the Florentine hills of Vinci, he was largely autodidact except for his stay during seven years in Andrea di Cione Verrocchio’s studio. Speaking no foreign languages and bad in mathematics, he was openly gay in times when Savonarola burnt homosexuals in Firenze. Florentine court records show that Leonardo and three others were charged with sodomy but acquitted in 1476. The arrival of Hugo van der Goes’ Portinari tryptic in the local Sancta Maria Novella church brought new painterly technics, effecting profoundly the working method of all Italian painters. Also Leonardo worked exclusively in oils since. His father’s 12 legitimate heirs, his half-siblings, caused him difficulty in the inheritance dispute in 1504.

Left-handed, vegetarian, absentminded, almost heretic, unimpressed by authority, he published nothing during his lifetime. By 1472, at the age of 20, he qualified as master in the Guild of Saint Luke. Florence was then the center of Christian Humanist thought, Neo Platonism and culture. He left his two first independent commissions unfinished (Altarpiece for the Saint Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo Vecchio and another in the San Donato convent in Scopeto). Leaving work unfinished was not unusual for him. Stubbornly, in 1500, he refused to paint the portrait of Isabella d’Este because she wanted a traditional one. A study drawing for it is in the Louvre. He worked eight months for the horrible Cesar Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, in the vain hope to be appointed as his military engineer. From September 1513 to 1516 he lived in the Belvedere in the Vatican under Pope Leo X, were Raphael and Michelangelo were also active. In October 1515, King François I recaptured Milan. He commissioned a mechanical lion that could walk, open his chest and reveal a bouquet of lilies. Before entering in François I’s service, Leonardo dissected more than 30 human corpses to understand the human anatomy. As a result, he discovered the function of the aorta and the cornea.

Studying the diffraction of light in the cornea allowed him to created changing perspectives in his Last Supper wall painting in Milan. His genius overcame all odds through his capacity to integrate accurate observation and imagination in his scientific projects. With eclectic curiosity he studied the flight of dragonflies, the flow of water and bird songs. Integrating everything in all, he is the quintessential renaissance genius.

His fame is at an unbelievable level since and shows no sign of abating. Anything connected to Leonardo, even copies, sell for fortunes. Only 15 paintings are definitely attributed to him. Recently, at Sotheby’s New York, an old copy of the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, estimated 80-100.000$ sold for 1.690.000$. The price tells us something about the enduring appeal of the portrait itself. The ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ and the Prado studio copy claim at least to be painted in Leonardo’s studio.

More than 20 versions are known of the Salvator Mundi. Three beautiful and autograph preparatory drawings for the drapery are in the English Royal Collection. An example, presented as the original by Da Vinci, was sold on November 15, 2017, nr 98, panel 65,6 x 45,4 cm, by Christies New York for the record braking amount of 450.300.000$ (fees included), bought by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. The bidding was done by prince Badr bin Abdullah.

The subject of Christ Pantocrator (in glory) in Renaissance dress making the sign of the cross with his right hand, while holding a non-refracting rock crystal orb (celestial sphere of the Heavens) is known since early Christianity. The Ravenna mosaics and Jan van Eyck developed the subject long before Leonardo painted one. King Louis XII of France ordered a Salvator Mundi as a gift for his wife Anne de Bretagne when he took Milan and Genoa in 1499. Leonardo was a celebrity in his lifetime, most of his deeds were noted down by his peers. But, there is no contemporary evidence that Leonardo painted it himself. All the today-known paintings datable after 1494 have contemporary references, not the one sold in 2017.

Until recently, the painting has been generally accepted as having been part of King Charles I of England’s collection. This subject is mentioned in his inventory as: ‘painted by Bernardo Luini’, one of Leonardo’s assistants. It may have come with the French-born Henrietta Maria when she married Charles I in 1625. She could have held it in her private rooms at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. In 1649 it was valued in the Royal collection at 30£, described as ‘A Peece of Christ done by Leonardo’, before being sold to a mason named John Stone to settle a debt owed by the English Commonwealth (1651). It was returned to King Charles II after the English Restoration in 1660, where it appears in a Whitehall inventory. In 1736 it was auctioned to Sir Charles Herbert Sheffield, first baronet with the contents of Buckingham House, when this building was sold to George III. In 1900 it was bought by Francis Cook first Viscount of Montserrat for Doughty House as attributed to Bernardo Luini. In 1913, the Finnish art historian Tancred Borenius catalogued it as a ‘free copy after Boltraffio’. The Viscount’s great grandson, Sir Francis Cook 4th baronet, sold it at auction in 1958 for 45£ as a work by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, one of the many ‘Leonardeshi’.

In his book ‘The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting (W M Collins 2019)’, Ben Lewis revealed that it was sold in 2005 at Charles Auctions in New Orleans, coming from Basil Clovis Hendry in Baton Rouge (USA), to the art dealers Robert Simon and Alexander Parrish for 1.175$. Mr. Hendry says that Christie’s has visited his father’s collection in 2005, but declined to integrate the painting in one of their sales. Christie’s cannot verify if this visit ever took place. Restoration by Mrs. Dianne Dwyer-Modestini started shortly after the sale and revealed ‘pentimenti’ (modifications) in the right hand, visible in all other versions. The blessing hand’s thumb was straight rather than in curved position. This fact, the sharp focus on the right hand in comparison with Christ’s body and the typical sfumato technic visible in some parts, motivated the owners and the restorer to believe in the autograph status of the painting. The painting was a wreck. The panel, fallen into 5 parts, was re-assembled and restoration undertaken. Almost 70% of the original paint surface had disappeared. The ‘re-creation’ of the painting took 5 years. Inside sources suggest that, after the exhibition at the National Gallery London, a new intervention made the painting more fashionable and Leonardesque. The so-called royal provenance boosted the value significantly. Seldom, a public gallery exhibits a heavily restored painting with no firm attribution, owned by dealers and a having a shaky provenance.

Today, neuroscience studies the influence of such a cognitive bias on people’s decisions. Our beliefs are strongly biased by unverified and fake information. We want to believe that paintings in museums are authentic. It is known that the art market deals in opinions, not in facts! Did the National Gallery London gave the misleading impression that Leonardo was the sole author of the Salvator Mundi? The Gallery failed to record the doubt of some of the five art historians it had gathered there in 2008. The painting is described in the catalogue as an autograph work. This was a crucial factor in the painting’s extraordinary escalation in supposed value between 2005 and 2017. Not invited at this meeting, Frank Zöllner, the author of Leonardo’s catalogue raisonné, questions clearly the autograph aspect of the painting. Moreover, recently, a version of the Salvator Mundi in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow bears the real King Charles I collection stamp on the reverse. Therefore, the royal provenance record of the Christie’s painting is highly doubtful. In this chaos of clues, the Salvator Mundi might be what its supporters claim it to be; or the opposite if one listens to the influential dissenting voices and documentary evidence.

It was bought by the Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier, via a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s, for 80.600.000$. One day later, Bouvier sold it to the Russian tycoon Dimitry Rybolovlev, again brokered by Sotheby’s, for 127.500.000$. When the tycoon divorced, a quarrel originated about the value of his painting collection. He sued Bouvier for unagreed markups. He initiated a legal action against Sotheby’s in 2016 for the difference (46.900.000$) between the acquisition- and the sales-price of the Salvator Mundi. He sold it at Christie’s New York in 2017. It became world’s most expensive painting of all time. Every information connected to Da Vinci is now world news.

The iconic ‘Last Supper’ is one of art history’s greatest achievements as well as the biggest tragedy. It is the most reproduced religious painting of all time. Anatomy, atmospheric perspective, intense emotion, drama are united in his sfumato technic. Leonardo rendered the emotional intensity of one of the most important episodes of the Gospels. The autograph, but for 80% ruined (oil on plaster) ‘Last Supper’ (1499) in the dining room of the convent Sancta Maria delle Grazie in Milan began decaying within years of its initial creation. Leonardo liked to experiment, but oil is not the right medium to paint ‘al fresco’ on a wall.

A 1540 inventory of the French governor of Milan’s estate in Gaillon (Fr) mentions: ‘A Last Supper on canvas with monumental figures that the king (Louis XII ?) brought over from Milan’. In 1545, the abbot Arnoud Streytens (1530-1560) of the Premonstratensian Abbey of Tongerlo (Westerlo, Belgium) acquired a near-pristine contemporary replica on canvas of Leonardo’s masterpiece, described (wrongly) in documents ‘as by the master’. Leonardo’s pupils made 3 copies of the mural on canvas. More than 50 copies were made in the XVIth century. The Tongerlo one, 45m2, approximately the size of the Milanese one, is the most faithful extant. The canvas is traditionally attributed to Andrea Solario, one of Leonardo’s best pupils. Solario was responsible for overseeing copies of Leonardo’s works. He is also documented to have worked at the Gaillon estate from 1507 on. Did he bring this second version from Milan to Gaillon? The heads of Jesus and Saint John the Evangelist are wrongly believed to be painted by Leonardo himself. As far as we know, Leonardo never painted on canvas. Exception made for the Virgin on the Rocks (1483-86; The Louvre & The National Gallery London), the master himself never made an identical second version of one of his compositions. The late Belgian art historian Roger Marijnissen (KIK-IRPA, Brussels) analyzed it and came to the conclusion that it only could have been made in 1520, one year after Leonardo’s death. Jean-Pierre Isbouts’ ongoing examination of the canvas with a hyperspectral camera hopes to reveal under-drawing hidden under the paint layer. This could bring some clarity in the debate. If under-drawing would be found, it could be compared with the securely attributed drawings by Leonardo. Were the original cartoons for the Milan one re-used in Tongerlo? A third copy, less faithful, was made about 1520 under the direction of Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, known as Gianpietrino. Belonging to the London Royal Academy, it is exhibited in the Magdalena Chapel at Oxford. Leonardo treated his pupils with great indulgence and delegated often great parts of the execution to them. None of them masters as well emotion in expression and gesture in the subtle gradation of tone and light as Leonardo does.

Visits of the ‘Last Supper’ painting are possible in the Tongerlo Abbey from May 1 until September 30, 14-17h, organized by curator frater Ivo Cleiren (ivo.cleiren@tongerlo.org). Almost unknown, this Tongerlo replica is closer to the ruined original.