Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Leonardo Portrait?

The London Times reported yesterday in an article entitled "Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci Discovered in Basilicata" about the small panel painting you see here. It was discovered by Nicola Barbatelli, a medieval historian, in the archive of a family in a small town in southern Italy. Journalist Richard Owen describes the portrait of Leonardo as representing him with "piercing blue eyes, a long nose and long greying hair with a droopy moustache." Now, leaving aside the fact that not all portraits are meant to be exact representations of subjects (particularly in the High Italian Renaissance when idealized representations were essential), why the rush to assume it's a portrait of Leonardo? Because it's all about his name. I'm surprised it hasn't been called "The Da Vinci Portrait" to coincide with the soon-to-be-released film version of Angels & Demons from Dan Brown's novel (i.e., Brown also wrote The Da Vinci Code). If I sound cynical, it's not that I mistrust the possibility that it could be a portrait of Leonardo. What bothers me is the rush to declare it so. At least they're not claiming it's a self-portrait. Or are they? Apparently on the back of the panel, the words "Pinxit Mea" ("my painting" or "painting of me" or "painted by me" depending on your Latin) are written in reverse, which was Leonardo's mirror writing. But is that enough to claim it's a self-portrait? I hope not, because one look at it beside other works like the Mona Lisa (1503-6, Louvre, Paris) or Ginevra de' Benci (c.1471/1478, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; see also below) immediately makes you realize that the quality of the portrait doesn't compare to these masterworks by him. One scholar attributes the portrait to a little-known artist named Cristofano dell’Altissimo, presumably was a Leonardo follower, which makes more sense to me. Keep in mind then that it's doubtful that Leonardo ever posed for the picture in question, which means the "portrait" is an imaginary representation that the artist probably took from some other representation of him, like Raphael's School of Athens in the Vatican. No one can question Leonardo's importance in the history of Western art, but the rush to claim this portrait is of him, or even by him, to the point that it's being included in an exhibition in southern Italy about Leonardo, lends itself toward capitalist interest rather than true art historical value. That said, if it is a portrait of Leonardo, I must say I love the feather in his flouncy hat. It's very chic. But apparently even that was added at a later date. Too bad! I love the thought of Leonardo as a swisher.

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