Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’

When Willem de Kooning’s Interchange was sold for $300 million in 2015, many art lovers started wondering: “what price would a masterpiece by an old master fetch if sold?” A logical question to which it was impossible to find an answer…until a couple of weeks ago. For a decade now, the most expensive paintings ever sold featured artworks by Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists (the usual suspects: Gauguin, Cezanne, Pollock and company).

Few Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces are owned by individuals, and even fewer could be offered for sale. Such was the case with Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, commissioned by King Louis XII of France around the year 1500. The painting was eclipsed by other masterpieces realized by Da Vinci like The Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and Virgin of the Rocks, specially that it was ‘lost’ and forgotten for centuries, until it resurfaced to the public in 2011 at the National Gallery Museum in London.
Auctioned last week in New York, Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million (auction house fees included), setting a record that might stand the test of time for quite some time. The painting shows Christ holding a transparent crystal orb in one hand, while the other hand blesses the viewer. The crystal orb looks nothing like our world, for he said “My kingdom is not of this world.” His fingers, hairlocks and face seem all seem to dissolve into the surroundings, an exquisite demonstration of Da Vinci’s perfection of the sfumato technique. Then comes the famous trompe-l’œil, a coessential Da Vinci trick of composition: is Christ smiling to us?

One cannot possible ignore the intense blue color of the Christ’s robe in this painting. Known as ‘ultramarine’, this color was obtained using the powder of lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone which, at the time, was imported from Afghanistan! The name ultramarine alludes to the fact that it came from a faraway country through Venetian and Genoese ships. In comparison to cobalt or azurite, ultramarine produced from lapis lazuli does not fade or change color.
Attributing Salvator Mundi to Da Vinci is not universally accepted. Da Vinci never signed his works, and less than twenty paintings can be attributed to him with relative certainty, most of them Madonnas or portraits. A polymath in every sense of the world, Da Vinci had a reputation for not finishing much of what he had begun. Painter, sculptor, engineer, mathematician and inventor, his genius seems to have kept him constantly distracted by new ideas, but some of his experiments proved catastrophic, using painting techniques that proved unstable and unsuitable for the supports to which they were applied.

Why would someone pay 450 million dollars for a Da Vinci? For one thing, the ‘discovery’ of Salvator Mundi sent strong shockwaves across the art community around the world, for all of Da Vinci’s works are in museums around the world (the Uffizi, the Louvre, the Hermitage, etc.) and none of his works are offered for sale. We would never really know the exact motives of the buyer. Is it a true passion for Da Vinci and his art? Is it a decision motivated by religious zeal and an admiration for the representation of Jesus Christ in the painting? Is it an investment where the painting serves as store of value? Big art auctions are difficult to expect, let alone explain. Art, when traded as a commodity, follows the market laws of supply and demand, and yet, it has its own peculiarities. Pricing is not based on labor hours, but rather on a complex set of values, some intrinsic, some perceived, that involve the sentimental value, the halo effect of the artist, the historical value of the artwork, its aesthetic quality, to the end of a very long list. Not even the most experienced and reputed auctioneers would have guessed that Salvator Mundi would fetch such a price! Now the question becomes: when would that record be broken again?

So far, the top five most expensive paintings ever sold are:
1. Salvator Mundi by Da Vinci – $ 450 million in 2017
2. Interchange by Willem de Kooning – $ 303 million in 2015
3. Card Players by Paul Cezanne – $ 266 million in 2011
4. When will you marry? by Paul Gauguin – $ 210 million in 2014
5. 17A by Jackson Pollock – $ 200 million in 2015

Click any image below to enlarge it.


The Last Supper and the Colors of Christ

‎“Besides occupying the centre of Leonardo’s painting, Christ’s spatially isolated from the ‎apostles, all of whom are bunched together as they physically touch their neighbors or lean ‎across one another in partial eclipses. Leonardo further highlighted Christ by placing him ‎against a window that opens onto a landscape of clear sky and bluish contours –by giving him, ‎in effect, a halo of sky. The effect is dazzling, even despite the color loss, as the warm tones ‎of Christ’s face, hair, and reddish undergarment advance while the cool blues of the ‎landscape recede: a prime example of Leonardo’s knowledge of the push and pull of colors. ‎For the blue mantle over Christ’s left shoulder Leonardo used ultramarine, which was, along ‎with gold, the brightest and most expensive of all pigments. One fifteenth-century treatise ‎on painting called it ‘a color noble, beautiful, and perfect beyond all other colors.’ A singly ‎ounce could cost as much as eight ducats, more than the annual rent paid on a house by a ‎poor worker in Florence. So expensive was ultramarine (the only known supply came from ‎Afghanistan) that unscrupulous thieves sometimes scraped it from paintings. Because of tis ‎beauty and expense, it was used to color the most prestigious and venerated parts of a ‎painting, most notably the mantle of the Virgin Mary.‎

The colors of Christ’s reddish undergarment were equally bright and deliberately intensified. ‎Leonardo generally laid his colors on a base coat of lead white spread across the entire wall. ‎For this red garment, however, he covered his white primer with a carbon-based black ‎pigment to create dark foundation, then added vermilion. Vermilion was the most brilliant of ‎all reds, and its appearance on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie would be all the more ‎striking because it was a pigment that like ultramarine could not be used in fresco. Vermilion ‎was made from cinnabar, a brick-red mineral that ancient Romans believed came from the ‎blood of dragons crushed to death under the weight of elephants. Like most mineral-based ‎pigments, it was incompatible with lime. Indeed, the layering of five separate coats of paint, ‎carefully manipulated to intensify their values, was something else completely unknown to ‎fresco.”‎

Source: Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King


Duel for Eternity: Michelangelo and Da Vinci

Artistic rivalries between geniuses usually produce wonders. Bernini and Borromini, Brunelleschi and ghiberti, Mozart and Salieri…how about Michelangelo and Da Vinci? Here is the story:

“In 1504, soon after the marble David was complete, Michelangelo had been hired by the government of Florence to fresco one wall of a council room inside the Palazzo della Signoria. The opposite wall was to be decorated by another Florentine artist with an equally illustrious reputation, Leonardo Da Vinci. Then aged fifty-two, Leonardo held the field in painting, having recently returned to Florence after almost two decades in Milan, where he had painted his celebrated Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie. These two men –by far the most renowned artists of the age –were thereby thrown into direct competition.

The artistic duel (between Michelangelo and Da Vinci) was made even more compelling by their well-known dislike of each other. The surly Michelangelo had once taunted Leonardo in public for having failed in his attempt to cast a giant bronze equestrian statue in Milan. Leonardo, meanwhile, had made it clear that he had little regard for sculpture. “This is a most mechanical exercise,” he once wrote, “accompanied many times with a great deal of sweat.” He further claimed that sculptors, covered in marble dust, looked like bakers, and that their homes were both noisy and filthy, in contrast to the more elegant adobe of painters. All Florence awaited the outcome.

(…) Michelangelo was commissioned to pain The Battle of Cascina, depicting a skirmish fought against the Pisans in 1364, while Leonardo was to illustrate The Battle of Anghiari, showing a Florentine victory over Milan in 1440.

After toiling in great secrecy for several months, both emerged in early 1505 with the fruits of their labors: full-size chalk drawings that revealed, in bold strokes, the overall design of their compositions. There to 1,100-square-foot drawings caused an outbreak of almost religious fervor in Florence. Tailors, bankers, merchants, weavers, and, of course, painters –all flocked to Santa Maria della Novella, where the two cartoon were displayed together like holy relics.

Michelangelo’s cartoon features what would become his trademark: muscular nudes in frantic but graceful gyrations. He had chosen to illustrate a scene leading up to the battle, when a false alarm was sounded to test the readiness of Florentine soldiers as they bathed in the Arno, resulting in a mad scramble of naked men onto the riverbank and into their armor. Leonardo, on the other hand, concentrated on equestrian rather than human anatomy, showing mounted soldiers battling for a fluttering standard.

Transferred in color to the walls of the Hall of the Great Council –a vast chamber supposedly constructed with the help of angels –these two scenes would have created, without doubt, one of the greatest artistic wonders of the world. Alas, after such a promising start, neither fresco was ever completed, and the duel between these two famous sons of Florence, each at the summit of his powers, failed to come off. Michelangelo’s fresco, in fact, was never even started. No sooner had he finished the magnificent cartoon than, in February 1505, he was ordered to Rome by the Pope to sculpt the Pope’s tomb. Leonardo made a tentative start on The Battle of Anghiari, but his experimental method of painting failed drastically when the colors began dripping from the wall. Chastened by this humiliating failure, he lost his appetite for the work and soon afterward returned to Milan.”

From ‘Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling’ by Ross King

Even though we cannot enjoy neither the frescos nor the original cartoons, we can still admire some original preparatory sketches as well as two reproductions of the full cartoons by different artists:

Leonardo Da Vinci: The Anatomist

This is a good read…an article by Alastair Sooke of the Daily Telegraph:

‘We tend to think of Leonardo da Vinci as a painter, even though he probably produced no more than 20 pictures before his death in 1519. Yet for long periods of his career, which lasted for nearly half a century, he was engrossed in all sorts of surprising pursuits, from stargazing and designing ingenious weaponry to overseeing a complex system of canals for Ludovico Maria Sforza, the ruling duke of Milan. During the course of his life, Leonardo filled thousands of pages of manuscript with dense doodles, diagrams, and swirling text, probing almost every conceivable topic. Not for nothing, then, is he often considered the archetypal Renaissance man: as the great British art historian Kenneth Clark put it, Leonardo was the most relentlessly curious person in history.

Yet according to Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man, a new exhibition at the Edinburgh International Festival, one area of scientific endeavour piqued Leonardo’s curiosity arguably more than any other: human anatomy.

Leonardo’s interest in anatomy began when he was working for Ludovico in Milan. “On the 2nd day of April 1489”, as he wrote at the head of a page in a new notebook, he sat down to begin his “Book entitled On the Human Figure”. After executing a sequence of stunning drawings of a skull, though, his studies went into abeyance, probably because he lacked access to corpses that he could dissect.

Bodies of evidence

But his ambitions to publish a comprehensive treatise on human anatomy persisted – and around two decades later, he returned to his otherwise unused notebook, which is now known as the Anatomical Manuscript B and is kept at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. In it he made a number of pen-and-ink drawings recording his observations while dissecting an old man who had died in a hospital in Florence in the winter of 1507-08.

In the years that followed, Leonardo concentrated on human anatomy more systematically than ever before – and by the end of his life he claimed that he had cut up more than 30 corpses. In the winter of 1510-11, while probably collaborating with a young professor of anatomy called Marcantonio della Torre at the University of Pavia, Leonardo compiled a series of 18 mostly double-sided sheets exploding with more than 240 individual drawings and over 13,000 words of notes. Now known as the Anatomical Manuscript A, and also in the Royal Collection, these sheets are full of lucid insights into the functioning anatomy of the human body.

Leonardo made many important discoveries. For instance, he produced the first accurate depiction of the human spine, while his notes documenting his dissection of the Florentine centenarian contain the earliest known description of cirrhosis of the liver. Had he published his treatise, he would be considered more important than the Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius, whose influential textbook On the Fabric of the Human Body appeared in 1543. But he never did.

Heart of the matter

Yet arguably Leonardo’s most brilliant scientific insights occurred after Marcantonio’s death from the plague in 1511, when the great polymath fled political turmoil in Milan and took shelter in the family villa of his assistant Francesco Melzi, 15 miles (24km) east of the city. It was here that he became obsessed with understanding the structure of the heart.

The heart surgeon Francis Wells, who works at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge and recently published The Heart of Leonardo, recalls coming across Leonardo’s studies for the first time as a medical student. “I remember thinking that they were far better than anything we had in modern textbooks of anatomy,” he says. “They were beautiful, accurate, absorbing – and there was a liveliness to them that you just don’t find in modern anatomical drawings.”

During his investigations, Leonardo discovered several extraordinary things about the heart. “Up until and after his time, because of course he never published, the heart was believed to be a two-chambered structure,” Wells explains. “But Leonardo firmly stated that the heart has four chambers. Moreover, he discovered that the atria or filling chambers contract together while the pumping chambers or ventricles are relaxing, and vice versa.”

In addition, Leonardo observed the heart’s rotational movement. “If you look at a heart, it is cone-shaped,” says Wells. “But it’s a complex cone in a geometric sense, because it’s a cone with a twist. This is because the heart empties itself with a twisting motion – it wrings itself out, a bit like the wringing out of a towel. In heart failure it loses this twist.”

According to Wells, Leonardo didn’t fully understand the function of cardiac twist. “But everything starts somewhere,” he says. “There’s a passage in which Leonardo describes the slaughter of some pigs on a Tuscan hillside. You or I would probably enjoy a nice glass of red wine while the pork was cooking, but Leonardo was thinking about this at the time. They killed the pigs by pushing little spears through the chest into the heart, and Leonardo noticed the rotational movement of these little spears in the heart. It was totally blue-sky research, of no use to anybody of his time, but it was a correct start along the road to understanding cardiac twist, which is now one of the hottest topics in understanding heart failure.”

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, were Leonardo’s observations about the aortic valve, which he made while experimenting with an ox’s heart. Intrigued by the way that the aortic valve opens and closes to ensure blood flows in one direction, Leonardo set about constructing a model by filling a bovine heart with wax. Once the wax had hardened, he recreated the structure in glass, and then pumped a mixture of grass seeds suspended in water through it. This allowed him to observe little vortices as the seeds swirled around in the widening at the root of the aorta. As a result, Leonardo correctly posited that these vortices helped to close the aortic valve. Yet because he never published his far-sighted research, this remained unknown for centuries.

“This wasn’t understood until the 20th Century,” says Wells, “when it was shown most beautifully in [science journal] Nature in 1968 by two engineers in Oxford. There was only reference to Leonardo da Vinci. There are two extraordinary things about that: first, there was only one reference, and second, the reference was 500 years old.”

So what made Leonardo such a brilliant anatomist? “One mustn’t get carried away claiming that Leonardo was a completely unique figure,” says Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings in the Royal Collection, and the curator of the Edinburgh exhibition. “There were lots of investigative anatomists around at the time, and there were lots of artists who were interested in anatomy. But Leonardo pushed these two things further than anybody else. He was the supreme example of an anatomist who could also draw, or of an artist who was also a very skilled dissector. It was the union of these two skills in a single figure that made Leonardo unique”.’

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph.

Source: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20130828-leonardo-da-vinci-the-anatomist




Da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’

“Everyone who sees her
-even if too late to see her alive –
will say: that suffices for us
to understand what is nature
and what art.”
– Bernardo Bellincioni, poet at the court of Ludovico Sforza

Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with the Ermine), about 1488

There is nothing innocent about even the most innocent looking of Da Vinci’s paintings. ‘Lady with an Ermine’ is a perfect example. What seems to be the portrait of a young lady holding an ermine is nothing other than the outer expression of an intricate system of symbols.

Identified as Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Milan’s powerful Ludovico Sforza, she is posing while holding a white-furred ermine. Why an ermine? The reasons are many, even though it is impossible to know what Da Vinci had in mind exactly:

First, ermines are famed for their reserved appetite (if they get too fat, they can’t slip through burrows to chase their preys) and hence are symbols of moderation. Cecilia, a refined lady of good taste and a poetess, is a moderate, self-contained character, even though she did not bear noble blood.
Second, legend had it that ermines would rather give in to their hunters than risk spoiling their pure white fur. Cecilia is pure at heart, despite being Ludovico’s mistress. Quite appropriate, bearing in mind that Sforza sponsored Da Vinci.
Third, ermines are lustful, they are symbols of childbirth, and yes, Cecilia bore Sforza’s son. Of course we cannot see her belly, obscured entirely by the ermine and by her hands.
Fourth, Ludovico, having received the Order of the Ermine from the King of Naples, had the nickname of ‘Ermellino Bianco” or White Ermine. She is actually ‘holding’ her beloved Ludovico.

But there is more to this, and the image below explains it better.


The Last Supper: the World’s most abused Masterpiece

“The Last Supper is perhaps the world’s most abused masterpiece.” – The Superintendent of Fine Arts in Milan.

Other famous quotes about the deteriorated state of the Last Supper:
“The Last Supper is the most important dying thing in the world…”
“It is a living fossil of an artistic masterpiece…”

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece; was painted on the wall of a dining room in Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan), commissioned by Duke Sforza as a gift for the friars. It was finished in 1498.
It portrays the last supper that Jesus Christ had with his disciples, and captures their reaction right after Jesus informed them that one of them will betray him. The process of restoration for The Last Supper turned into a process of excavation! That involved cleaning and scraping away 500 years of dirt, glues, mould, as well as many layers of over-painting by a succession of previous restorers…but that is not all.

The experimental painting technique used by Da Vinci proved unstable, and much of the original pigment is now lost. In 1566, Giorgio Vasari wrote that it was already a mess and in 1587, the painting was deemed “half-ruined.”
In 1652, the friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie enlarged a door in the wall where the Last Supper is painted, thus cutting off Christ’s feet (in the painting). Later on, the friars put a curtain to cover the painting, which scratched the pigment continuously, and trapped much humidity, furthering the damage.

In 1762, a painter was hired to restore the painting. He did a very poor job, and another painter was brought to remove the over-painting using a scalpel!
Six major restorations took place since 1762, doing more harm than good, darkening the painting and using dirt-collecting glue and wax that obscured and ruined Leonardo’s pigments. The face of Jesus in the painting has become a mere mask. We do not know for sure what features Leonardo conceived for Jesus before restorations. In 1796, when Napoleon’s troops occupied Milan, they used the room where the Last Supper is painted as an armory and a stable. The soldiers did much damage to the painting, and some claim that Napoleon tried to send the wall with the painting on it back to France.

In 1943, an allied bomb landed next to the wall, but as one of the historians mentioned, “the bomb was more intelligent than humans,” and no damage was done.
The porous wall allows humidity, and the already-polluted air of Milan only added to the deterioration of the painting. A successful restoration that ended in 1999 revealed that what we see today is only 20% of the original painting.

The Mona Lisa’s ‘Sister’: Da Vinci’s Surprise at the Prado

The art circles in Spain are stuck in a state of mixed feelings. On one side, the death of Antoni Tàpies a few days ago brought to an end a living legacy of a great abstract artist. On the other side, the announcement earlier this month of the discovery of an original ‘Mona Lisa’ in the Prado Museum of Madrid is obviously one of the most intriguing such ‘finds’ in the recent history of art!

The Mona Lisa of the Prado was discovered while removing layers of black overpaint during the restoration of a painting that was believed to be a copy of the Mona Lisa done by a Flemish painter. Further restoration revealed the Tuscan landscape at the back and now it has been confirmed that this Mona Lisa was painted at Da Vinci’s studio (possibly by an apprentice or assistant of his) at the same time that the original Mona Lisa was painted.

As The Art Newspaper puts it: “what is most exciting about the Prado replica is what it reveals about Leonardo’s original. In the Madrid copy there are areas that are better preserved than in the Louvre painting. The replica gives us more detail of the spindles of the chair, the frill on the edge of the fabric on Lisa’s chest and the semi-transparent veil around her left shoulder, arm and elbow.”

The Prado Mona Lisa will be on show this month in Madrid, before traveling to Paris to be exhibited alongside the Louvre’s Mona Lisa.