Monday, July 17, 2023

Desecrating Leonardo

 Annamaria on Monday

Suppose I told you that the owner of drawing by Picasso decided to erase a section and pencil in his own idea of what it should look like.  Or that a curator of a collection  of Van Gogh masterpieces decided to hack off parts of a couple of them, perhaps because they would better fit in the wall space available. Dreadful, right?  With these images in mind, you will understand why I am incredulous after learning that over the centuries people have had the AUDACITY to mess around with works by one of the greatest, certainly one of the most famous artists who ever lived: Leonardo da Vinci.

Unbelievable, right?  Stick around.

Let's begin with an early work: his Annunciation, which now hangs in the Uffizi.

The wings on the angel Gabriel in that painting have always struck me as weird looking.  But, I thought, this is one of Leonardo's earliest works.  Still.those clunky appendages don't look as if they would be at all helpful to a creature who could fly.  And we all know Leonardo's obsession with flight.  He was also a keen observer of the natural world, particularly fixated on how to use birds' wings as a design for a machine humans might use to to fly. And the wings in that painting bear little or no resemblance to what Leonardo saw in nature.


I found the truth in further research.learning this, from Kenneth Clark's critical biography Leonardo Da Vinci:  "...we notice that the angel's wing has been lengthened to canonical proportions by a very crude over painting, and hangs like a brown smear above the enchanting landscape to the left. The original short wings were directly painted from the wings of a bird, and fit the angels shoulders with convincing naturalism."  Sir Kenneth goes on to report that the originals were more like the ones we can still see in the Annunciation of Lorenzo di Credi, also in the Uffizi. 

At some point, some bozo wielding a lethal paintbrush decided to change what was there.  He thought he knew better than Leonardo?  It boggles my mind.

That idiot was not alone. Here is an even worse travesty.  It involves Leonardo's Ginevra di Benci, now in the National Gallery in Washington.  

It is still a masterpiece, no doubt about that.  But one of the things Leonardo would certainly have noticed about the woman he painted was her remarkable hands, which were so beautiful that two poets wrote poems about them.
    Fact is Leonardo did not leave them out.  There are lots of clues that tell us the real story.  On the reverse side of the painting, there is the upper half of a wreath  that circles a juniper sprig (Ginevra is the Italian word for juniper) and the words "Beauty adorns virtue."  The bottom half of the wreath is not there..  
Back to Kenneth Clark: "we can guess by its unusual shape that the picture has been cut at the bottom,… We can calculate that the amount cut off must have been at least 9 cm, which would give it the classical proportion of 3 to 4.… That the fingers of her right hand would have been touching the lower laces of her bodice.  In the picture these laces are in fact, repainted. Unfortunately, we can tell from the back that the bottom of the picture has been damaged and a new piece has been added, so that an x-ray would not reveal the vanished fingers."

As if that were not astonishing enough, there is good evidence that those hands were truly remarkably beautiful.  Scholars believe that Leonardo's drawing, now at Windsor Castle, was his study for that part of the painting that some nincompoop decided to chop off.  I weep.

The last of my reporting today concerns the possibility that the criminal busybodies may have tampered with the most famous painting in the world. 

We have all seen this image many, many times,  It has become so familiar that, perhaps it lost some of its magic for you.  Please put that aside and take another look.

The Mona Lisa deserves its fame.  Its riveting quality comes from the expressiveness of that face.  Those assessing eyes look right at us.  Are they about to twinkle with delight or turn accusing and full of hate?  Is that smile about to turn into a grin?  Or a sneer?  Is she about to laugh with the delight at what she sees?  Or shout "off with their heads."  

The last time I was in the Louvre, there was a long line of visitors waiting their turn, not really to see her it seemed, but to take a selfie with her.  That day, her impenetrable  demeanor seemed to me more complex and appropriate than ever.  She was amused by their antics.  And smugly pleased with her fame.  But on the cusp of ordering the gendarmes to drag away the lot of them and lock them up.  I felt in league with her that day.

Is it remotely imaginable that anyone would take a saw to such a brilliant, unmatchable, monumental treasure?

Here is a copy, made by a lesser painter.  It shows us something missing from the one we know so well.

For many decades, the greatest experts in the world were sure that that someone had sawed off the columns you see above:
  • In 1943, the formidable Kenneth Clark said that the copy above was true, in the sense that the original showed the lady sitting on loggia.
  • In 1959, Richard Friedenthal - a renowned German art historian declared that 10 centimeters had been cut off the sides of the painting in the Louvre.
  • This opinion was confirmed by an Italian art historian in 1973, a Frenchman in 1992, and another Italian in 2000    
But then 39 experts examined the painting in October of 2004, when it was being reframed.  Once it was taken out of its frame, they found that the original wooden panel on which Leonardo painted had been cut slightly, but only on the edges where there had never been any paint. The experts said "… this trimming clearly involved the bare wood and not the paint layer…"

So what we have seen all these years is actually what Leonardo wanted us to see, 

Unable to leave the lady alone, art historians are now positing that Leonardo painted two Mona Lisas, one with columns and one without.  They site what looks somewhat like the remnants of columns, barely visible where the imagined "Earlier Mona Lisa" did have columns.  The painter, Raphael is said to have copied a cartoon (not a funny drawing, but Leonardo's sketch of the painting he intended to paint).  But no one has ever seen such a drawing by Leonardo.  Only Raphael's take off of it.

Did Leonardo paint that larger version and then a few years later the one we know?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I imagine, given the look on her face, that Leonardo - known to have been a practical joker and inventor of mind games - might have put those vague touches there just to play with our minds.

A kind of echo of the look in those eyes.  And that smile.



  1. Fascinating, Annamaria. Of course, no reputable artist would "touch up" any other artist's work. So it's not surprising that when it happens, it's awful!

    1. So right, Michael. One wonders how the idiot with the brown paint got his hands on Leonardo's painting! That's still a big question for OUR times. How come the wrong people get access?

  2. With all the rewriting of books in print underway by the Moral Police, who would have thought those targeted are in a class with Da Vinci!-- Jeff

    1. So right, Bro. I would put the bigots who are now forcing the expurgation of history text books in the same circle in hell with the guy who sawed off Ginevra's hands!!