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Life in the Leonardo Business

Posted on 03 Apr 2018

Leading Leonardo scholar Professor Martin Kemp reflects on five decades of Da Vinci expertise, and shines a light into the art world’s darkest corners.

No artist has captured the popular imagination like Leonardo. From the extraordinary draw of the Mona Lisa, to the huge success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, he is endlessly mythologised, appealing to exhibition-goers and conspiracy theorists as much as to academics and auction houses. As the 500th anniversary of his death approaches, Leonardo is more popular than ever, placing leading expert Professor Martin Kemp in a uniquely difficult and fascinating position. Here he tells us how his 50 years spent studying the great artist has brought him face to face with the tangle of vested interests and financial and commercial imperatives that dog the art world, magnified tenfold in the extraordinary figure of Leonardo.

Does the scramble to mark Leonardo’s 500th anniversary reflect an eagerness to exploit a commercial opportunity or a response to something more fundamental?

It’s both in the sense that Leonardo brings in the visitors and attracts attention, but at the heart of it is the fact that he is just extraordinary and has a cultural reach bigger than almost any other figure in the arts and sciences. It’s a symbiosis between him being famous for being famous, and his being famous for being absolutely extraordinary.

You have been studying Leonardo for some 50 years. To what extent have you gained a sense of the man himself or do we know him principally as the sum of his work?

Obviously the work I’ve done with Leonardo has been very varied, but at the core of it has been a sense that there was an essential unity in what he did; he wasn’t diverse. He did lots of diverse things but it wasn’t scattered; everything related back to a set of central interests in how nature works and how the artist or scientist can re-present nature – make nature again – basically visually, in Leonardo’s case. So there is that large central core from which all the other activities ramify, they all branch out from that. In terms of the man himself, he is very elusive. In his writings, he never really lets his emotional guard slip.

'The Last Supper' is probably the world’s second most famous painting, after the 'Mona Lisa'. It is a painting with a unique cultural significance, having, says Kemp ‘transcended time and space’. [The Last Supper in the course of Restoration. Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images]

In just a few years you have weathered more storms over attribution than most experts would expect to encounter in a lifetime.

If you make an attribution to any prominent figure there is a certain amount of kerfuffling in the newspapers but it’s at a lower level than Leonardo. I’ve been stalked and I’ve been abused online – you don’t expect an Oxford art history professor of a certain number of years to be subject to media defamation, but that’s a symptom of being involved with Leonardo. People who have no real opinions and wouldn’t have any opinion about a Raphael attribution have opinions about Leonardo, and I get assailed by people I call the ‘Leonardo loonies’, people who are sucked into this whirlpool of excitement around Leonardo, and basically drown.

Leonardo seems to amplify art world issues.

Everything is magnified with Leonardo and it’s in the art world but also beyond, because you’ve got surgeons writing about his anatomy, you’ve got music historians writing about his musical instruments. One of the features of Leonardo is that the excitement and engagement goes beyond the art world.


Leonardo’s interest in anatomy, nature and inventions, such as this drawing for a wing of a flying machine, means that his appeal extends far beyond the art world. [Leonardo da Vinci, Drawing for a wing of a flying machine, from Codice Atlantico, fol. 858r. Pen and ink. Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan]

The Salvator Mundi appeared at the National Gallery’s 2011-12 show Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, to very little fuss. So how did its sale become such an enormous media event?

It did have an impact at the time of the exhibition, and in fact some of us had known about the picture for four or five years and managed to keep quiet about it. It was scheduled to be shown in the London National Gallery show and it attracted a lot of attention, but of course it was in the context of an exhibition in which entrance tickets were selling for as much as Bruce Springsteen tickets on the black market. The Salvator was part of that but it wasn’t the focus. It then became a focus with the very messy sale to the ‘king of the freeports’, Yves Bouvier, and his selling it on – or flipping it as they say in the trade – to Dmitry Rybolovlev, and then the law case which is still rumbling on; a new one’s just been started. Then it all escalated with the sale at Christie’s for effectively USD 450 000,000 – it was just extraordinary.

Was its attribution disputed at the time of the exhibition?

Not particularly – those who had seen it were convinced that Leonardo had been deeply involved with it. One or two people thought that perhaps the senior studio assistants had done some of the work, which is not impossible. The great Leonardo scholar Carlo Pedretti, who has just died recently, went on the old pre-restoration photograph and hadn’t seen it – and still when he died he hadn’t seen it. He did not accept it. But I think for what is a terrifically difficult attribution – anything coming up claiming to be by Leonardo is setting the bar as high as it could be set – given that, the general acceptance was quite considerable.

Is authorship principally a matter of importance for the market?

It’s incredibly important to locate any historical work of art, whether it’s a medieval anonymous sculpture or a Leonardo, in the right place otherwise we’re not looking at it in a fully informed way. Seeing is a malleable business, and how we see something is greatly influenced by what we know about it, what we think it is and the circumstances of viewing it, and so on. So it is important and if we’re taking Leonardo, who of course is one of the most revered figures in cultural history, if we have something in his oeuvre which is wrong, it’s grossly misleading: it’s like having a choral ensemble where someone is singing very out of tune. It provides a very serious distortion and for the historian, getting things right – and we get plenty of things wrong after all – but getting things right is an imperative, it’s a kind of ethical thing if we wish to understand the past properly.


Tickets for the National Gallery’s exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan were selling on the black market for as much as tickets to see Bruce Springsteen. [Early morning queue for 'Leonardo da Vinci. Painter at the Court of Milan', outside the National Gallery London. Andy Rain/EPA/REX/Shutterstock]

Is there any hope of a truce between scientists and connoisseurs, whose methods in establishing authorship so often bring them into conflict?

It is too polarised and it’s not to the credit of the art world that this is the case, but there are signs that things are changing somewhat. The big auctioneers are increasingly buying units that can do scientific analysis because they’ve been badly burned when scientific analysis has shown that their rather snap judgements, in some cases, have been wrong. The profile portrait of La Bella Principessa, was handled by Christie’s and they basically didn’t do due diligence. Whatever it is, the owner was quite rightly dismayed that they really didn’t research what was a potentially incredibly important and valuable object, so I think the auction houses are realising that if they have scientific analysis units with whom they can work closely, that are maybe even owned by them, then they will be fortified against findings which authoritatively contradict what their judgement by eye tells them.

Is science the ultimate arbiter of authorship?

No, I don’t think there is an ultimate arbiter, there’s a whole range of things: provenance, documentation, scientific examination and judgement by eye. A lot of scientific examinations produce something which is nihil obstat – there’s nothing in the way of it being by this artist. If we find all the right pigments, etc, and we’ve got a carbon date for the panel or canvas, all that tells us is that it’s from the right period – it’s the right area. It’s rare that science comes up with something which says, yes, it must be Leonardo rather than a Leonardo follower, or whatever. However, there are things with Leonardo, unusually, which are strong pointers to his authorship because he was an inveterate fiddler with compositions while they were being painted. Whereas once Raphael has sorted out a composition and done the full scale drawing, he makes small adjustments. Even while he was painting, Leonardo could see so many viable alternatives that you get underdrawings which are really rather unlike anybody else’s, including his immediate followers. So in his case there is an unusually high yield from the scientific examination, but that’s not universal with all painters.

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