The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.

In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.

 

 

Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481

I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.

Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.

But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.

With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.

 

 

Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.

Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.

Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.

Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.

These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.

Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.

 

 

The Joy of Discovering Lost Art, by AHA alum Charlie Whelton

“This is a very, very special morning and you’re seeing a very, very happy director in front of you”.

These were the words of the Van Gogh museum’s Axel Rueger when he confirmed the authenticity of Sunset at Montmajour, the first full-size Van Gogh to be discovered in 85 years. Mr Rueger was not alone in his elation. I certainly felt a surge of joy on hearing the news, and I am sure I was not the only one to feel excited from afar. It is an odd type of happiness that accompanies the discovery of a lost or unknown artwork, however, and one that varies depending on the details of the case.

Sunset at Montmajour, for example, was not really ‘lost’ in the literal sense, but rather misattributed. The piece was long believed to be a fake, and so remained in the attic of a Norwegian collector for decades before it could finally be declared genuine. In a situation like this, the long road to verification leaves one feeling happy for the artist himself – authentication being a posthumous vindication of a work long misunderstood. In a similar vein, Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman With Red Hat was ‘lost’ for years in the basement of a museum – mislabelled, unappreciated and kept from public eyes until it was tracked down by the head of an auction house. This type of discovery of lost art is satisfying, because it appeals to our sense of justice. Not only has the world been blessed with a ‘new’ Van Gogh piece, but a beautiful artwork is also finally getting the credit and exposure it deserves.

 

Picasso, Seated Woman with Red Hat

This being said, it is certainly more romantic when a lost artwork is discovered hanging on the wall of a modest family home, rather than the basement of a museum. The story of the recovery of Martin Johnson Heade’s Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth is a wonderful example of this. A man from Indiana bought the 19th century work for ‘next to nothing’ to cover a hole in his wall, where it stayed until he noticed the similarity between it and a painting in the art board game Masterpiece. After verification, he sold the work for $1.25 million.

This type of story resonates in a different manner to the Van Gogh authentication. We like it when a potential Michelangelo is found down the back of a sofa in Buffalo because it feeds into a common fantasy we have of being plucked from obscurity and catapulted to stardom. It says not to take things at face value, that the strange $5 painting bought from a thrift shop could be a Jackson Pollock, and that the ugly plaster statue of Buddha could be solid gold underneath. If the joy of the Van Gogh discovery is in the justice of verification, with these stories it is in the romance of speculation. The beauty of possibility.

The Golden Buddha reminds us that discovery of lost art takes many forms. The chance discovery of the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings by four boys and a dog in 1940 seems a world away from the sophisticated verification of Sunset at Montmajour, for example. Likewise, the Venus de Milo, one of the most famous sculptures in the world, was found by accident by a peasant digging in his field on a Greek island in 1820. More recent is the excavation of the sunken city of Heracleion. Lost for 1,200 years, it was considered legend for centuries, before being rediscovered in 2000. The images demonstrate how magical the rediscovery of long-lost treasure can be.

 

A diver at the excavating at the lost city of Heracleion

While this article has mainly dealt with the thrill of discovery or the justice of proper attribution, this overlooks the (admittedly geeky) joy of the detective work inherent in finding and verifying an important work. The popularity of The Da Vinci Code has certainly added to interest in locating Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, believed to be hidden behind a Giorgio Vasari fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. While this search, with cryptic clues, endoscopic cameras and hidden cavities continues, the recent discoveries of works entitled La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi appear to offer a greater chance of authenticating a genuine lost Da Vinci artwork. While the debate over these works is less ‘Dan Brown’ than the search for the Battle of Anghiari, an array of books, articles and lectures arguing both sides have been produced in the pursuit of verification. The desire to figure out the final piece of the puzzle is strong in human nature, and the potential discovery of lost works by great artists offers the perfect opportunity.

Leonardo's 'La Bella Principessa' and 'Salvator Mundi'

 

Whether the particular joy of the recovery of a lost piece of art comes from the justice of attribution, the improbability of the discovery or the puzzle of verification, there is always one common factor: that a work of beauty once lost, is now found. Having written for this blog before on artworks being stolen and defaced, it restores hope to witness what is essentially the opposite happening in Amsterdam right now.

The Power of Line and Development: thoughts on the exhibition ‘Master Drawings from Mantegna to Matisse’, by Marie Naffah

There are two things that resonate in my mind after visiting the temporary exhibition Master Drawings from Mantegna to Matisse at the Courtauld Gallery: the importance of developing a work of art through drawings and sketches, and the authority of line in many a finished artwork. Having been to Italy and experienced the masterpieces of artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto, I found the Courtauld’s drawings exhibition very refreshing. From this selection of sketches, the visitor is able to access the artists’ intentions and priorities for their work without having to see a finished piece at all.

The exhibition inpired me to  explore the concept of creative development and line using photographs of my own drawings, and editing software. I photographed a selection of portraits which I made while on the Art History Abroad Early Summer Course 2012.

 

Above is a portrait, ‘Rose’, edited with an applied “coloured pencil” filter. Here, I have sketched over digitally to create the chiaroscuro affect present in Piazzetta’s Head of a Boy and an Old Man (above right). I have also tried to imitate Piazetta’s use of white chalk to heigten the contrast of the black chalk on grey paper which in turn creates a soft suggestion of form.

I was also struck by  Ingres’ beautiful study for the Grande Odalisque, which demonstrates that line and composition can dominate colour and detail, creating something just as effective.

 

Above left: Here, I have divided my portrait in two, leaving the original drawing on the right hand side. Similarly to Ingres’ study, I have erased the detail on the left hand side, allowing the viewer to focus on the line and composition of the photograph.

Above : Self portrait taken 3 times in the Marino Marini museum in Florence and “Emma” in Santa Maria Novella. I decided to place these drawings together after seeing Da Vinci (Mary Magdelene studies 1480 ) and Veronese’s Studies of Christ Carrying the Cross (both above right). In both drawings the artists experimented with slightly different compositions before settling on the final outcome. Viewing the sketches, one can see the figures merge together, almost creating a sense of movement. It is rare that we are able to follow an artist’s thought process like this.

So in conclusion I am amazed at how effective a simple line drawing can be. The exhibition perhaps told me even more than if I’d seen the finished works. Here, I end with my final photograph, “Ella” which combines two layers – one of the original grayscale photograph, the other digitally sketched. As I hope you will see here, with a sketch, you do not necessarily need an abundance of detail and colour for the result to be effective. What you do need, is a clarity of line and of composition – something the drawings of the old masters illustrate in abundance.