Lost Leonardo? The Drawing, the Painting, and the Swiss Bank Vault

As a child, I was always fascinated by a famous portrait drawing of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci.  A reproduction of the drawing, which is presently in The Louvre, illustrated a section about the d’Este sisters in a large book about the Italian Renaissance.  While the accompanying portrait of Beatrice, supposedly the more beautiful of the two, left me unimpressed as to either beauty or technical skill, I found the near-contemporaneous portrait by Leonardo absolutely captivating. While not as pretty as her sister, Isabella in her portrait seemed to be the deeper soul, more interesting and more immediate, her portrait looking like a faded photograph.

So it was particularly fascinating to read that authorities have recovered what at least one expert believes to be the finished Leonardo portrait of Isabella d’Este, of which The Louvre drawing would be a preparatory sketch.  The work, which had been in Rome but was later moved to a bank vault in Switzerland, was at the point of being illegally sold when it was seized. Italian law is extremely strict when it comes to works of art leaving the country, and the owners of this work had not obtained either permission to send the work abroad, nor an export license to sell it.

Looking at the painting itself, while one can immediately spot the similarity to the Leonardo drawing of Isabella d’Este, the finished work is somewhat different in appearance. It is obscured by what, to many eyes, may seem unusual add-ons. Unlike the image of Isabella in the drawing, the figure in the painting is wearing a diadem, and rests her right arm, which is holding a palm branch, atop what appears to be a wheel.

For those of my readers who are fellow Catholics, or who are familiar with Christian iconography, these attributes will immediately identity the figure not as Isabella d’Este, but as St. Catherine of Alexandria. A popular subject in Italian Renaissance art, Catherine was a princess martyred in the 4th century persecutions of the Emperor Maxentius, hence the crown of a princess and the palm of a martyr. One of the instruments of her torture before her death was a spiked wheel [ N.B. which is where the spinning firework known as a “Catherine Wheel” got its name.]

While this may seem an odd thing to have happened to the portrait of one of the most famous women of the Renaissance, such “makeovers” were not unusual in art history. The most obvious example would be the placement of strategic plaster fig leaves over the genitalia of nude sculptures, but even in painting, when a work seemed to be dingy or in need of a facelift, an owner or a dealer might have the piece repainted to turn it into something more appealing to a particular buyer.

Discoveries of long-missing masterworks beneath centuries of overpaint still occur on a regular basis.  However, rediscovering a major painting by Leonardo da Vinci would be quite the coup, if this work is eventually authenticated. Personally, I am suspicious, for two reasons.

First, whereas much of the 20th century was spent by art historians debunking overly-optimistic attributions of Old Master paintings and sculptures to famous artists, since the beginning of the 21st century we seem to have been heading headlong in the opposite direction. We have been rediscovering lost paintings and sculptures by the great names of Western art all over the place. Is this because of our access to improved technology and greater levels of scholarly collaboration on an international basis, or is there some other explanation?

Second, while it is difficult to make a judgment from a single photograph, to me the painting looks wrong. The one thing which da Vinci did better than anyone else was hands. Look at the panoply of hands in his Last Supper, even in its sorry current state, and you will see what I mean. Isabella’s hand however, if this is indeed her portrait, is awkward. Her unnaturally long index finger doesn’t seem to point so much as bounce uncomfortably in the breeze, like a tree branch about to snap. Her curled fingers are too stumpy to be part of the same hand that would hold such an enormous finger.

Of course, I am perfectly happy to be proven wrong. If this is a missing Leonardo, the final product of a project whose preparation was so well-known, then with proper cleaning and restoration, it would be of immense importance in art history. In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see what science tells us.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500) The Louvre, Paris

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500)
The Louvre, Paris

New Shows in DC, New York Celebrating El Greco

To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco (1541-1614), both the National Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have just opened new exhibitions celebrating his life and work.  Although ethnically Greek and born on the island of Crete, El Greco – whose proper name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos – did the vast majority of his work in Spain, where he settled in his mid-30’s and spent the rest of his life.  His is quite a fascinating story of how a creative person’s output can completely change over time, based on the environment they work in.

In Manhattan, “El Greco in New York” runs from now until February 1st, and features 16 paintings by El Greco from the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. The show includes El Greco’s stunning “View of Toledo”, a landscape of his adopted city under storm clouds and lightning,which looks as though it could have been painted centuries later; his captivating portrait of the very intimidating  Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, whom you clearly did not want to tangle with; and two very different versions of a nocturnal “Adoration of the Shepherds”, showing the shepherds arriving at the stable with joy to meet the Christ Child.

Here in Washington, the National Gallery has mounted “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” of the artist’s work, in collaboration with The Philips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.  There are 10 paintings in the exhibition, which opened this past weekend and continues until February 16th.  Highlights include his charming, bright altarpiece of “St. Martin and the Beggar”, which is one of my favorites for showing the Roman soldier and martyr dressed in contemporary Spanish armor; the powerful, heavy contrasts of the “Repentant St. Peter” from The Philips; and the almost-abstract “Visitation” from Dumbarton Oaks, which I always make a point of seeing when I drop by the museum.

Unusually for an important artist of the late Renaissance, El Greco began his working life as an icon painter.   While there is always some room for individual expression in the creation of such works, the repetition of familiar and well-established elements is very important to that school of Christian art.  As a result, it makes it difficult for the average person to tell what century a particular icon was painted in, from simple observation.  El Greco might have remained content to stay in the tradition of icon painting, or “writing” as it is often referred to, but instead he decided to take a chance and go to Venice, which ruled Crete at the time.

Once he got to Italy, El Greco began to change radically as an artist.  From his work and studies in Venice and Rome, he absorbed what he observed in the late Renaissance and Mannerist art that was being created around him, so different from the Byzantine icons he himself had been trained to create. He was able to study with Titian, the last of the living great masters of the High Renaissance, explore the churches and palaces, and meet with a number of very important people.  He even communicated with Pope St. Pius V, offering to wipe out Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel and paint something more suitable, noting that the late Florentine master was a great sculptor who did not know how to paint very well (a sentiment I share.)

However most of El Greco’s greatest work even today is located in Spain, because that is where he moved after job opportunities in Italy were not working out as he had hoped. The Spanish imperial court was quite different from the flashy, humanist salons in Rome or Florence that El Greco had grown accustomed to.  Serious, stiff, and devoutly Catholic, the Spanish aristocracy when El Greco arrived was not interested in showing off.  They dressed almost exclusively in black most of the time, seeking to impress through sober formality rather than over-familiarity or flippancy, and saved their decoration for their churches.

As a result, El Greco’s art began to change once again.  Whereas previously, he mimicked the colors and light of the Italy he experienced as a young man, as he grew older and spent more and more time in the barren, desert-like plains and cities of central Spain, El Greco’s paintings gradually became darker, featuring stark outlines and contrasts, more elongation and distortion.  His style changed to the point that by the end of his life, some of his later pieces could very easily be mistaken for being works created by a Modern artist in the 20th century.

While you may not be able to get to Madrid or Toledo to see El Greco’s finest work, here in the United States we are fortunate to have about 4 dozen works by El Greco, many of them quite good, in collections around the country.  And now, even more fortunately for those in the Northeast Corridor, two of the best places to see his work are New York and DC.  With these anniversary exhibitions having just opened, you’ll be able to more closely observe his progression as a creative thinker for yourself.

"St. Martin and the Beggar" by El Greco (c. 1597) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“St. Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco (c. 1597)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Lessons from a Stinky St. John the Baptist

It was interesting to read this morning that the exhibition in Milan of a very large, important painting by the High Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) known as the “Madonna of Foligno”, has attracted almost a quarter of a million viewers in the roughly six weeks it has been on loan.  I have always thought of this altarpiece as being a rather swarthy picture, particularly in its imagining of the figure of St. John the Baptist.  Yet thinking about this painting gives us a good opportunity to see how and why an artist’s work can dramatically change as they mature, and also gives us non-artists the opportunity to reflect on how we ought to be doing the same in our own lives.

Ansidei Madonna by Raphael (c. 1505-1507) National Gallery, London

“Ansidei Madonna” by Raphael (c. 1505-1507)
National Gallery, London

Raphael’s peaceful, meditative “Ansidei Madonna” of c. 1505-1507 for example, is quite different in feeling from the “Madonna of Foligno”, even though St. John the Baptist appears in both. The “Ansidei Madonna” is a colorful and genteel picture which, like many of the images from Raphael’s time in Florence, had a tremendous impact on mass-produced Catholic devotional images in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  We can look at this picture and admire its architectural perfection, the loveliness of the figures, and the stillness of the composition.  However, while Raphael’s work in Florence at this period has a sense of hushed meditation about it, this style was not to last.

Raphael moved to Rome about a year after finishing the “Ansidei Madonna”, and when he arrived he was quickly inundated with more artistic commissions than he could handle.  From executing famous frescoes like “The School of Athens” in what was then the Papal Library, to designing the magnificent tapestries with scenes from the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul for the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was an extremely busy man.  Yet despite the overwhelming amount of work he took on, he did not stay stagnant as an artist.  Rather, he found the time to study, to think, and to grow artistically and intellectually, so that as he grew older, his style lost that porcelain, idealized quality he started out with, to become something still beautiful, but far more realistic.

The figures in the “Madonna of Foligno” bear some relation to those of the “Ansidei Madonna”, in that we can see they came from the same artistic mind, but the differences are very striking.  In the scant few years since Raphael left Florence, he has been exposed to the work of more diverse artists, and is living in an ancient, rough-and-tumble, sprawling city, the center of the Christian world in the West.  Raphael begins to see that there is another side to life, just as worthy of representation as the courtly images he was famous for.  As he grows, Raphael begins to become interested in “real people”, i.e. the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, the not-so-pretty.

Compare the figures of St. John the Baptist in the “Ansidei Madonna” and the “Madonna of Foligno”, for example, and you can see how Raphael’s world expanded when he moved to Rome.  In the earlier painting, although he is dressed in camel skin and has facial hair, St. John does not appear to have just come in from the Jordan River, having munched on some bugs covered in honey for breakfast, but rather from having taken a nice, hot bath and enjoyed a good lunch. He is built like an idealized athlete from ancient Greece, and could just as easily be the figure of Apollo but for the setting and his accouterments.  The saint is draped in a glorious, expensive red satin cloak, symbolizing his martyrdom, and holds a delicate gold and silver staff in the form of a cross.

"Madonna of Foligno" by Raphael (1511) The Vatican Museums

“Madonna of Foligno” by Raphael (1511)
The Vatican Museums

Now, compare this image to the figure of St. John the Baptist in the later painting.  Here St. John looks like he positively stinks from not having had a bath in quite awhile: his skin is dirty, tanned, and leathery.  His hair and beard are matted and unkempt; he is muscular, but not in a male model sort of way.  Rather, he has the sinewy arm of someone who is used to doing rough work with his hands.  He looks drawn, tired, and pinched – in short, a believable ascetic, who suffers for his faith.

Like in the earlier painting, St. John is depicted wearing his iconic camel hair and having the red robe of the martyr.  Yet whereas in the Florentine image the red drapery is luxurious and more important, here the rough and dirty animal skin is the more prominent article of clothing, with a rugged red martyr’s robe only suggested by a bit of fabric appearing over St. John’s left shoulder and jutting out behind him.  And unlike the jewel-like cross in the earlier picture, in this altarpiece St. John’s staff is a very rough, wooden pole, with a crossbeam affixed toward the top by some rope wrapped around it.

Truly, it is hard to believe that these two figures representing the same historical person could come from the same imagination, painted only four to five years apart.

Keep in mind, of course, Raphael is not trying to represent actual scenes from the Life of Christ in these pictures, but rather the concept of “sacra conversazione”, which you can learn more about here.  Because of that fact, there is always going to be idealization in such compositions.  Yet notice how remarkably less idealized, how much more believable, is the St. John the Baptist in the later picture.  The earlier picture is arguably the more beautiful of the two, but the later picture brings us into this “sacred conversation” in a very different way.  For in it, with all its swarthiness and grime, we can more clearly see ourselves as we are, in all of our human imperfections.

Thus I think the lesson here in comparing these two works is not simply an artistic or academic one.  Raphael’s art evolved the more he saw and experienced, even while remaining tied in to where he had come from as an artist.  So too, we should be open to change as we go along through this life: not losing sight of who and what we are, but at the same time gaining greater nuance and insight into our relationships with God and with our neighbor as we mature.