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

Última_Cena_-_Da_Vinci_5

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:

Renaissance Tales – IV: Filippo & Filippino Lippi

Filippo Lippi is not a name that rings a bell for those who are not familiar with Renaissance Art. The young Filippo who became a friar was definitely not the kind of ‘friar’ that the Church would hope for. More interested in painting than in his religion classes, he finally left the monastery, but kept his religious vows. One adventure after another, it was his artistic wizardry that saved him from the pirates that had kidnapped him and took him to North Africa for sale.

Back to Italy, his talent did not go unnoticed. The Medici took him under their patronage, and would save him later on when he did the unthinkable (and the unforgivable). It was while painting a picture for a monastery that he first met the charming Lucrezia Buti, a young nun (some say a girl in the custody of the nuns) that bewitched him. He convinced the nuns to let Lucrezia pose for the figure of the Madonna, and before they knew it, he had kidnapped her, had his way with her, and refused to give her back.

The scandal was assured, and so was the reaction of the Pope, if it was not for the intervention of the Medici, thanks to whom the Pope settled for a milder measure: a pardon for marrying Lucrezia, who bore him a child no less talented than his father: Filippino Lippi.

Unlike his father, Filippino gained the respect and appreciation of his fellows. Following an initial apprenticeship with Botticelli, he started receiving one commission after another, cementing his fame and his status among his contemporaries. His art had more ‘content’ than his father’s, and it hid many messages alluding to his intellectual activity. The day Filippino died, all the workshops in Florence closed in grief. Lippi the son was nothing like Lippo the father, but they both share the holy spirit (of artistic mastery).

Filippino Lippi Self-Portrait

Renaissance Tales – III: Savonarola and Botticelli

They call him the Prophet of Doom, a man whose fanatical discourse seemed completely out of place in XV-century Florence, a city completely transformed and re-invented through the minds and spirits of Renaissance men like Dante, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and others. Florence became the undisputed centre of humanist learning, the essence of which was challenged by one man: Savonarola.

The man who started humanism at a young age and was on his way to studying medicine eventually underwent a radical change, becoming a preacher. Sadly, he succumbed to his imperfections and fears, and launched a ruthless attack against all the values of Renaissance, condemning the revival of pagan traditions and ideals, and threatening the people of Florence with a divine punishment for their loose morality.

As he criticized the Medici and all the power structures in the community in the name of religion and social justice, his sermons became more appealing to the masses, and his audience base became broader. His ‘visions’ became more scary and his status grew steadily as he managed to stop the King of France from ruining Florence, having met him as part of a delegation dispatched by a terrified Florence.

Then started the processions that he sent to collect what he deemed ‘objects of vanity’: jewelry, mirrors, wigs…but also poetry books, paintings depicting mythological subjects…they were all collected. In February 1497, the sky of Florence turned black with the ashes of all these objects, burned in a huge bonfire known in history as ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. The scene seemed to defy all logic, dealing a strong blow to the progress that Renaissance Florence stood for. Even more scary was the influence that he exercised even on the most refined of minds: how about Botticelli sending some of his paintings to the Bonfire?!

Then came the fall as Savonarola committed the classical mistake: attacking the Vatican and the Pope. The Pope responded aggressively, preventing him from preaching and threatening the entire city. Savonarola had insinuated at his ability to work miracles, but when put to the test he seemed confused and attempted an escape. A failed one.

Imagine this: in 1498, people gathered to witness yet another bonfire at the Piazza della Signoria. This time, it was Savonarola and two companions burning, accused of heresy (among other things). The river Arno carried away the ashes, but not the memory: a commemorative plaque marks the site of the execution, and a high tower (that of Palazzo Vecchio) cast its shadow, sealing the victory of the Renaissance refinement.

Renaissance Tales – II: Ghiberti, Brunelleschi & Masaccio

Renaissance Art had to start somewhere; it had to find inspiration in someone. This somewhere happened to be Tuscany, and the ‘someone’ was a group of extraordinary artists that revolutionized art after Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto had paved the way.

It’s 1401 AD in Florence. Something was about to happen, and the world of art the way we know it would never have been the same without it happening: an incident would spark the genius of two of history’s greatest artists, while a third artist would be born. Together, these three artists would be the holy trinity of Early Renaissance Art: Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Masaccio.

Masaccio was born in 1401, and it took him only 27 years (that is, till he died) to leave a lasting legacy that would inspire generations of artists to follow, breaking away with the ‘maniera greca’ and painting bodies of mass and volume, all subject to strict application of perspective. His ‘Trinity’ is the perfect examlpe.

If perspective is the game, then Brunelleschi is most definitely the name. Having rejected a shared commission with Ghiberti to sculpt the bronze doors of Florence’s Baptistery, he decided to dedicate himself to architecture. The result: while Ghiberti spent 48 years sculpting two pairs of immortal doors, one of which was described by Michelangelo as the ‘Gates of Paradise’, Brunelleschi used his skill to lift 4 million bricks over 50 meters above the ground level –without buttresses or ledges- to build the mammoth dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s Cathedral.

Not far from the scene, Brunelleschi’s friend, called Donatello, was ‘sculpting his way’ into glory through his bronze ‘David’, the first freestanding nude figure since antiquity. David stands triumphant, having slain Goliath. It comes as no surprise that Florence identidied itself with the Biblical hero, who used his wits to beat the physical strength of Goliath, just like the city itself had taken a quantum leap ahead of its more powerful enemies and rivals by focusing on a field in which it was sure to trumph: art, culture and humanist learning.

Renaissance was born, having its first overwhelming ‘monuments’ and masterpieces already dominating the streets, piazzas and churches. The cityscape of Florence has changed once and for all.

Florence Cathedral Dome - BrunelleschiTrinity - MasaccioGates of Paradise - Ghiberti

Renaissance’s Goldsmiths: From Ghiberti to Da Vinci

What do Renaissance masters like Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello and Gozzoli have in common? What ‘unpleasant start’ did they all have? The answer comes from Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King:

“Goldsmiths were the princes among the artisans of the Middle Ages, with a large scope to explore their numerous and varied talents. They could decorate a manuscript with gold leaf, set precious stones, cast metals, work with enamel, engrave silver, and fashion anything from a gold button to a shrine, reliquary, or tomb. It is no coincidence that the sculptors Andrea Orcagna, Luca della Robbia and Donatello, as well as the painters Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benozzo Gozzoli had all originally trained in the workshops of goldsmiths.

Despite its prestige, goldsmithing was not the most welcome of professions. The large furnaces that were needed to melt gold, copper and bronze had to burn for days on end, even in the heat of summer, polluting the air with smoke and bringing the danger of explosions and fire. Noxious substances such as sulfur and lead were used to engrave silver, and the clay molds in which metals were cast require supplies of both cow dung and charred ox horn. Worse still, the workshops of most goldsmiths were found in Florence’s most notorious slum, Santa Croce, a marshy and flood-prone area on the north bank of the Arno. This was the workers’ district, home to dyers, wool combers, and prostitutes, all of whom lived and worked in a clutter of ramshackle wooden houses.”

Bornze Panel by Ghiberti