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Is the Salvator Mundi a real masterpiece by Leonardo?

That Renaissance genius of Leonardo da Vinci has given to humanity immortal art masterpieces, for all his life. They embed an exceptional multitude of mysteries, that still persist. We can think to the enigmatic smile of the Gioconda, to her controversial identity, or to the extraordinary contraptions that he projected. Moreover: the lost Battaglia di Anghiari, real obsession for those who are trying to find it under the plaster of Palazzo Vecchio. Someone also suggests that Leonardo was the real maker of the Holy Shroud…

A new enigma

Nobody could imagine the existence of a new and modern enigma, characterized by many contradictions. As the sudden unleashing of a bolt from the blue sky, or an actor’s instinctive leap on the stage of a theater, the Salvator Mundi appeared.

Salvator Mundi
Salvator Mundi

Actually, critics could have a vague idea of its existence since, when the picture was found, many of them were not surprised. The presence of a Salvator Mundi by Leonardo was certain from secondary sources: preparatory studies, copies by the pupils of the master, indirect evidences. Instead, it is undoubted its location and if the picture was effectively preserved. The first question is if the Salvator Mundi that reached us is that work by Leonardo, or another work with an analogous subject and a different author.

The doubtful attribution of the Salvator Mundi

For instance, it is said the the Czech engraver Wenceslaus Hollar could have seen the work in the 17th century, and had realized a reproduction with the etching tecnique. The Hollar’s engraving is similar to the Salvator Mundi which now we know. Nonetheless, there is no historiographical document attesting the existence of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi, nor of his client.

Engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar

It is the adjective which raises some doubt. The picture is real, tangible, but it is the adjective leonardesco which needs a deepening. Is the Salvator Mundi that we know a real picture by Leonardo, or a work by some of his pupils? Many scholars have some doubts about the author. Someone points out that it is a work by Boltraffio, for others Bernardino Luini, for other one by Francesco Melzi… It is an open debate, that could last for a long time. Unfortunately, nobody can deepen the issue, since the picture is again mysteriously lost.

Salvator Mundi, an uncertain history 

When Hollar saw the Salvator Mundi, probably the work was staying in London. Particularly, it could be preserved among the treasures of Charles I of England, great collector and admirer of the Italian art. The first relevant question concerned how the picture would have arrived in England, if it was effectively the original masterpiece by Leonardo. The supporter of the attribution to Leonardo have argued that the Salvator Mundi has arrived in London for the marriage between Charles I and Enrichetta Maria in 1625. Originally, the work could have been in France, where Leonardo could have given it to the king Luigi XII during his years of life. After the death of Charles I Stuart, his collection were dispersed and sold at auction.

In the 17th century, there was a historiographical void of news and sources about the picture. An analogous Salvator Mundi, probably a copy by Marco d’Oggiono, Francesco Melzi or Boltraffio, is cited in the collections of Francis Cook. After several controversies the work arrived in Paris, at the Marquis de Ganay [1]. In France, the picture was considered the real painting by Leonardo, autenticity even sustained by one of the most important scholars of the Renaissance genius, Carlo Pedretti.

Salvator Mundi of de Ganay

Occurrence

In any case, the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo was already lost, or its collocation was controversial. Pierluigi Panza argued that the Leonardo picture was bought by John Stone, who in 1659 handed it back to Charles II Stuart, making it inventory with the writing: “Leonard de Vince our Savior with a globe in one hand and holding up the other”.  The painting moved from the Stuart family to the king Jack’s lover, Catherine Sedley, and later to another family after a marriage, the Sheffield. This family sold it at auction for two pounds in 1763.

Hence, a possible legendary ownership tells that the Salvator Mundi was owned by literate, William Blake. This consideration was derived from a confidence he made in 1778 to George Cumberland. This latter was one of the most important English men of art, member of the Royal Academy and founder of the National Gallery of London. Nevertheless, these are mere guesswork and posthumous reconstructions. In fact, it seems that nobody remembered where the Salvator Mundi was, nor its value.

Its traces were lost between controversial changes of ownership and donations, until 1958. In this year a curious version of the Salvator Mundi, with mustache and beard, appeared. Later, it was discovered that it was modified in order to adequate it to the rules of the Counter-reform and the classical iconography of Christ. In 1958 the picture was sold, at a Sotheby’s auction, to an American collector for 45 pounds.

Salvator Mundi
Before the definitive restoration

Announcement

The recent and controversial history of the Salvator Mundi started in 2005, when it was acquired by Robert Simon, art collector, for ten thousand dollars. Nonetheless, Simon thought it was a minor work, and that the real masterpiece was that of de Ganay, preserved in France. Probably for this reason, he gave the work to the National Gallery of London in order to obtain a valuation and a summary restoration. Here the imponderable occurred. When the restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini, senior research fellow and conservator at the New York University, was starting her work, she suspected that the Salvator Mundi could be a Leonardo work. The same opinion was expressed by the expert Mina Gregori, of the University of Firenze, and Sir Nicholas Beaver Penny, later the director of the National Gallery of London. The gradient tecnique, whose use appears so clear in the work, contributed to this consideration.

Hence, in 2010 the clamorous announcement was made: after an accurate arrival, sustained by Penny at the National Gallery, three distinguished scholars declaired that the painting was the lost masterpiece by Leonardo. They were Pietro Maraini and Maria Teresa Fiorio, Milan essayists and experts of Leonardo, and Martin Kemp from the University of Oxford. An opposite opinion was expressed by Carmen Brambach, curator of the department of graphic at the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The scholar, invited by Penny, considered that the Salvator Mundi was rather a work by Boltraffio.

Although the opposite opinion by Brambach and other distinguished scholars, like Carlo Pedretti, the uproar aroused by the announcement of the National Gallery guaranteed to the Salvator Mundi was an extraordinary fame. Hence, the painting was definitely restored, removing the additions of the Counter-reform, as the mustache and beard, revealing an extraordinary pictorial mastery.

An international intrigue 

For that moment on, the Salvator Mundi was the protagonist of various international intrigues and controversial exchanges, sometimes crooks. It seems like a spy and 007 story. In fact, the painting was acquired by the Russian tycoon Rybolovlev, passionate about art and known for being the owner of the soccer team, AC Monaco, for 127 million dollars. The buying and selling occurred by the intermediation of a Swiss agent, the same who Rybolovlev sued later, sustaining that he was cheated for a total number of one billion euros. The denunciation by the Russian tycoon referred to a period of treatment and transfer of ownership concerning some art works, like those of Picasso, Modigliani and the same Salvator Mundi. At the moment, the international investigations are in progress, and seem to a war among secret services.

Detail of the face, which seems like that of the Holy Shroud

A millionaire auction 

On the month of November 2017 entrusted the Salvator Mundi to the famous auction house Christie’s, in order to be sold at a reasonable price. Certainly, the Russian entrepreneur could not imagine the exorbitant price at which the painting was sold. A mysterious buyer has awarded the work for 450,3 million dollars. The news has raised an enormous clamor, since the alleged Salvator Mundi has became the most expensive work of the world. Hence, some suggestions have originated about the person who could pay such a price. It is not certainly known the buyer, even though some clues suggest he could be the Saudi prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud, who could have acted by the will of the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman [2].

Disappearance of the Salvator Mundi

What is certain is that, in 2018, the Louvre of Abu Dhabi announced a permanent exhibition of the picture. Nonetheless, the public exhibition has never taken place, and since then nobody knows where the Salvator Mundi is. The authorities by the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi do not answered, and several are the hypothesis about the destiny of the unfortunate painting. Someone suggest that it is in Geneva, in a free port, where it could be in a duty free place. Another hypothesis is that critics from Abu Dhabi are still examining if effectively the painting is a real or false Leonardo work.

Is the Salvator Mundi a false? Is it a work by a pupil of Leonardo?

The Salvator Mundi, oil on a walnut table of 66x45cm, shows a blessing Christ. The gaze turned towards the observer, as in the Classic iconography. Christ indicated the cross with his right hand, and with the left one he keeps a transparent globe. It is the symbol of the sovranity of God over the earth. The particularity of the sphere is that it results transparent, thanks to a valuable optical effect of light refraction. A characteristic of the painting is the precision of the painting technique on the details of the blue and brown tunic, and the nuanced tecnique, as evidenced on the face and hairs. These are two typical characteristics of Leonardo, but substantially were reused by his pupils.

Table of Salvator Mundi

Controversial details 

A detail, that the passionate of the Florence master can observe, is the lack of a background. In fact, Leonardo characterizes his paintings with a typical landscape, like in the Gioconda or the Vergine delle Rocce. This peculiarity is completely absent in the Salvator Mundi, which reveal a black background and the complete lack of shadows. Another incongruence concerns the painting of the globe. The Florentine master, who had a deep knowledge  of the optical phenomenons, probably knew that the glass or crystal lenses produced inverted and enlarged images. These effects cannot be observed in the Salvator Mundi.

In any case, some tests on the pigments of the drapery reveal a compatibility with those use in another Leonardo paintings. Moreover, the Salvator Mundi seems stackable with some preparatory studies by Leonardo, which now are preserved at the Royal Library of the Windsor Castle.

Preparatory paintings at the Windsor Castle
Another preparatory painting at the Windsor Castle

All these elements have led some scholar to consider the Salvator Mundi an unmistakable masterpiece of Leonardo, like the mentioned critics at the National Gallery. Instead, for other one the Salvator Mundi is a work by the master’s pupils, like Boltraffio, Bernardino Luini or Francesco Melzi. Carlo Pedretti, the maximum world expert of Leonardo, affirmed: “We are facing a sophisticated marketing operation which is considering an original work by Leonardo what it is not… It is sufficient to observe it” [3]. The thesis is supported by the cited scholars Carmen Bambach, Frank Zöllner [4] and Michael Daley [5].

Another Salvator Mundi

In the month of november 2020 the International Committee Leonardo da Vinci has announced of having found the real Salvator Mundi by the Renaissance genius. Based on the studies by Annalisa di Maria, member of the Centro per l’Unesco of Florence, the Committe has revealed that it is not a copy of Abu Dhabi. Contrariwise, the “painting” by Leonardo could be in Lecco. In reality, it is not a painting but a drawing, since it could be a sketch of a private collection.

Salvator Mundi of Lecco

Annalisa di Maria is convinced of the finding, and she evidences that “the face represented is placed by three quarters like most of the subjects painted by the master of Vinci, that means on movement and with an impressive dinamicy […]. The real face of the Salvator Mundi […] was not probably finished” [6].

The Salvator Mundi is an enigma to be revealed.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

Notes

[1] L’ultimo Leonardo, Pierluigi Panza, 2018.

[2] Louvre Abu Dhabi postpones display of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, The Guardian 3 settembre 2018.

[3] Se Leonardo è una chimera -È errata l’attribuzione del «Salvator mundi», Carlo Pedretti, Osservatorio Romano, 02-07-2011.

[4] Salvator mundi, in Leonardo da Vinci: The complete Paintings and Drawings, Frank Zöllner.

[5] Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation, Michael Daley, 2018.

[6] Discovered a drawing attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci: «It is the real Salvator Mundi, that sold for 450 million dollars is false », IlMattino, 18 november 2020.

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