Leonardo da VinciBorn on 15 April 1452, the illegitimate son of Ser Piero di Antonio da Vinci, a notary who practised in Florence, and a girl of humble birth named Caterina di Piero del Vacca. His birthplace, the little fortified village of Vinci, is on the western slopes of Monte Albano, 10 km. north of Empoli. He was traditionally a pupil of Verrocchio. By 1472 he was registered as a master in the Compagnia di San Luca (painters’ guild) in Florence; but he was still living, presumably as an assistant, in Verrocchio’s workshop in the Via de Agnolo in 1476, when an accusation of homosexuality was brought against him. By early 1478, he had left Verrocchio’s studio and won his first recorded independent commission (for an altarpiece for the chapel of St Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio). In 1482 or 1483 he left Florence for Milan and remained there, as court favourite of Lodovico Il Moro, until 1499, when the Sforza dynasty fell to the French. His paintings during this first Milanese period include the Louvre Madonna of the Rocks (1483-86?), several portraits (including two of Lodovico’s mistresses) and the Last Supper (1495-97). At court, he was employed not only as a painter but designed decorations for weddings and masques, sets for theatre performances and costumes for tournaments, decorated the rooms of the Duchess Beatrice in the Castello Sforzesco, and devoted much of his time to military engineering and to architecture. He also worked on the design for a colossal (thrice life-size) bronze equestrian monument of Duke Francesco Sforza (Lodovico’s father); but the project got no further than a gigantic clay model of the horse, which was never cast and perished when French archers used it for target practice.
Leonardo fled first to Mantua (where he made a cartoon for a portrait of Isabella d’Este, now in the Louvre) and then to Venice, before returning to Florence in 1500. In 1502 he worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, accompanying him on his campaigns in Romagna. He again returned to Florence in 1503, and was commissioned by the Signoria to paint a huge mural of the Battle of Anghiari for the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo Vecchio. Only the central part was ever painted, and this deteriorated almost immediately because of deficiencies in the novel fresco technique he had employed (apparently using a wax medium in imitation of an antique method). From 1506 to 1513 he was chiefly in Milan again, working for the French conquerors. He worked on another bronze equestrian statue (this time for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, general of the French army), but this too was never cast. In 1513-16 he visited Rome (where his dilatoriousness in finishing paintings annoyed Leo X) and Bologna. He moved to France in the winter of 1516-17 on the invitation of Francis I. According to Benvenuto Cellini, the King ‘wanted nothing in return but the pleasure of his conversation’.
Leonardo died at Clos-Lucé (Cloux) on 2 May 1519, and was buried in the cloister of the little church of Saint-Florentin in Amboise (now destroyed). The greatest Universal Man of the Renaissance, Leonardo was a sculptor, architect, engineer, cartographer and natural scientist as well as a painter. He left some 13,000 pages of notes and drawings; but he never built a building, no sculpture by him is known to survive, and he left only a handful of completed paintings. He was one of the first Florentine artists to explore the potentialities of the Netherlandish oil medium. His famous invention of sfumato (the subtle blending of tones ‘without lines and borders, in the manner of smoke’) enabled him (in Vasari’s words) to overcome the ‘hard and dry manner’. His pyramidal compositions of the Holy Family and three-quarter length portraits of a sitter against a landscape background were frequently adopted by early sixteenth-century masters, such as Raphael, Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto, as patterns for their own pictures. Leonardo’s numerous Milanese pupils and followers included Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (who seems to have been his principal assistant), Ambrogio de Predis (who, with his half-brother Evangelista, collaborated with Leonardo on the Virgin of the Rocks), Marco d’Oggiono, Bernardino de Conti, Cesare da Sesto, Giampietrino, Andrea Solario, Bernardino Luini (whose pictures were once often ascribed to Leonardo), Gian Giacomo Caprotti, called Salaì (who entered Leonardo’s studio at the age of ten in 1490 and became his intimate pupil and friend) and Francesco Melzi (an aristocratic youth who became Leonardo’s inseparable companion during the last ten years of his life and inherited his notebooks, drawings and cartoons).
Abu Dhabi. Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Salvator Mundi. Wood, 66 x 45.
This picture – much damaged and formerly partly repainted – has been attributed to Leonardo only in the past few years. It was acquired by Sir Francis Cook, a London textile merchant and distinguished art collector, in 1900 as a work of Bernardino Luini. Christ's face and hair had been heavily overpainted. The attribution was changed in Tancred Borenius's 1913 catalogue of the Cook collection to a 'free copy after Boltraffio'. When the Cook collection was dispersed, the picture was sold in 1958 for just £45. It was then lost from view until 2005, when it resurfaced at a minor auction in Louisiana and was sold for $10,000. After a comprehensive restoration in 2007, the picture was extensively studied by art historians. It remained virtually unknown to the general public until 2011, when it was included as an original work of Leonardo in the major exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, held at the National Gallery, London. In 2013, a Russian billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, bought it for $127.5 million. Amidst huge publicity, it was auctioned at Christie's, New York, on 16 November 2017. It fetched $450 million – breaking the record for any art work sold at auction. Three weeks later, the buyer was identified as a Saudi royal, Prince Bader, and it was announced that the picture would be exhibited at the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi. (The picture has not yet been exhibited at the museum, however, and its current whereabouts is unknown.)
The picture has been identified with the 'Peece of Christ done by Leonardo' recorded, with a valuation of £30, in the inventory of Charles I's collection drawn up after his execution in 1649. The same picture was engraved in Antwerp in 1650 by Wenceslaus Hollar. It may subsequently have passed to James II's mistress, Catherine Sedley, but there is no record of it whatsoever beyond the late eighteenth century. Despite the gaps in its provenance and its damaged condition, most Leonardo specialists have supported the attribution. Some, however, have been more cautious. In the 2017 edition of his monograph on Leonardo, Frank Zollner writes that the 'very extensive restoration makes its original quality difficult to assess' and 'we might sooner see the Salvator Mundi as a high quality product of Leonardo's workshop'. There are some twenty other versions. One, in the Paris collection of the Marquis de Ganay, was optimistically published as Leonardo's original in 1982 by the American art historian Joanne Snow-Smith. Another (head only) is signed and dated 1511 by Leonardo's long-term assistant Salaì (sold at Sotheby's in 2007).
Cracow. Czartoryski Museum.
*‘Lady with an Ermine’ (Cecilia Gallerani). Wood, 54 x 39.
As well as a symbol of purity and virtue, the ermine was an emblem of Lodovico Sforza, who received the prestigious Order of the Ermine from King Ferrante of Naples in 1488. The sitter has been thought to be his Duchess, Beatrice d’Este, or more plausibly his mistress, Cecilia Gallerani (Gallerani is almost Greek for ‘ermine’). Cecilia Gallerani was a young Milanese woman of noble birth and remarkable learning (she spoke Latin fluently and composed sonnets), who afterwards married Count Ludovico Bergamini. A portrait of her by Leonardo is mentioned by the poet Bernardino Bellincioni in a sonnet published in 1493 and by Isabella d’Este in a letter of April 1498 to the (by then) Countess Bergamini asking for the loan of the picture. The Cracow picture was acquired, probably in France, by Prince Adam Czartoryski at the end of the eighteenth century. It was exhibited at his wife Isabella’s ‘Gothic House’ museum, where it probably acquired the inscription upper left (‘La Bella Feroniere – Leonard d’Awinci’). The picture was unknown to Western art historians until the end of the nineteenth century. Early twentieth-century critics, often relying only on photographs or poor reproductions, frequently ascribed it to one of Leonardo’s Milanese pupils, such as Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio or Ambrogio de Predis. But it is now unanimously accepted as an authentic Leonardo, painted during the late 1480s or early 1490s. The picture has not been substantially repainted or badly restored, as has sometimes been suggested. The black background has been overpainted, probably to cover up damage in the upper left corner.
Drumlanrig Castle (Dumfries and Galloway). Collection of Duke of Buccleuch.
‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’. Wood, 48 x 37.
A letter of April 1501 from Fra Pietro da Novellara (the Carmelite Vicar-General who was preaching a series of sermons in Florence) to Isabella d’Este mentions that Leonardo was working on a small picture for Florimond Robertet, the Secretary of the King of France. The picture shows the ‘Madonna seated as if about to wind yarn, while the Child, with his foot in a basket of spindles, has taken hold of the winder and is looking intently at the four spokes, which form a cross, and holds it tight, laughing and refusing to give it up to his mother, who tries in vain to take it from him’. The composition described by Fra Pietro is known in numerous versions (five of which were included in a small exhibition held at the National Gallery of Scotland in 1992). By far the best of these are the one in the Duke of Buccleuch’s collection and one formerly in the Redford and Battersea collections and now in private ownership in New York. The status of the two versions is unresolved. One hypothesis is that one or other is Leonardo’s original, which was abandoned by him and completed by an assistant. Another view is that both are near contemporary copies made by pupils or followers from Leonardo’s cartoon or drawings. A more optimistic view (supported by the discovery of significant pentimenti in both versions) is that Leonardo and his assistants were involved in painting some of both pictures. The Duke of Buccleuch’s picture has been in his family for over 250 years. It was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in August 2003, by thieves posing as tourists, but recovered in Glasgow in October 2007.
*Adoration of the Magi. Wood, 243 x 246.
The great edifice, with broken arches and broad flights of steps, in the left background is sometimes supposed to represent the Temple of Peace (a Roman basilica that collapsed the night that Christ was born) and symbolise the decay of pagan civilisation. A rival interpretation is that the building is not in ruins but under construction, and symbolises the Church rising after Christ’s coming. The men fighting on rearing horses in the sketchy landscape on the right may refer to the legend that the Three Kings were enemies until Christ’s coming caused them to make peace. The young man on the extreme right, turning to address an unseen companion, has the character of a self-portrait. The panel is the underdrawing in bistre, or brown monochrome, for an altarpiece ordered in March 1481 by the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scoperto. Their monastery (now destroyed) was at Colombaia, a few miles outside the Porta Romana of Florence. The commission stipulated that Leonardo should complete the panel within twenty-four or at most thirty months in exchange for a third share in a small property in the Val d’Elsa or (at the discretion of the monks) 300 florins. He received money in advance from the monks, as well as a load of wood and one lira six soldi for painting their clock. The altarpiece was left unfinished when Leonardo left Florence for Milan in late 1482 or early 1483, and the monks eventually commissioned Filippino Lippo to paint another Adoration, which was commissioned in 1495 and is also now in the Uffizi. In Vasari’s time, Leonardo’s unfinished picture was ‘in the house of Amerigo Benci, opposite the Loggia de’ Peruzzi’. In 1621 it is recorded in an inventory of the belongings of Don Antonio de’ Medici at the Medici Casino in the Via Larga; it entered the Uffizi after his son, Don Giulio, died in 1670. A six-year restoration was completed in 2017. The removal of dirt and old varnish has revealed new details and pentimenti, and has left the figures and horses, beautifully modelled in dark wash, looking more three-dimensional.
*Annunciation. Wood, 98 x 217.
From the altar of the sacristy of the convent of San Bartolomeo di Monteoliveto (just southwest of Florence and now a military hospital), where it was attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio. Removed to the Uffizi in 1867 when the convent was suppressed, and catalogued under Leonardo’s name in 1869. Attributions to Verrocchio or Lorenzo di Credi followed; but the general view now is that the execution is partly or wholly by the young Leonardo. Everyone agrees that he was responsible for the atmospheric landscape, with a harbour scene and mountains soaring above. That he also contributed to the composition is proved by a pen and ink study, certainly by him, at Christ Church, Oxford, for the sleeve of the angel, and studies in paint on linen for the draperies. The picture has been dated about 1472-75, when Leonardo was still in Verrocchio’s workshop, and it is possibly his earliest surviving painting. The antique-style pedestal of the Virgin’s reading desk is very like the bronze and porphyry sarcophagus of Giovanni and Piero de’ Medici executed by Verrocchio in 1472 for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo.
*Baptism of Christ. Wood, 177 x 151.
The tradition that Leonardo added the angel on the extreme left, holding Christ’s garments, to Verrocchio’s picture is recorded by Albertini (1510) and repeated by Vasari (who alleges that the master, ashamed at being outdone by his pupil, resolved never to touch a brush again). Modern criticism also sees Leonardo’s hand in the distant landscape (with a harbour scene and mountains soaring above), and probably the figure of Christ as well. The picture was painted for the Vallombrosan convent of San Salvi (now a museum) on the northern outskirts of Florence. During the siege of 1530, it was removed to another Vallombrosan house, Santa Verdiana. Transferred to the Accademia in 1810 and then to the Uffizi in 1919. The head (particularly hair) of the angel on the left has been damaged by flaking and was retouched when the picture was restored in 1998.
Leda and the Swan (copy). Wood, 130 x 77.
Leonardo made many preliminary drawings for a Leda, and the existence of a number of painted copies suggests that he brought the composition at least as far as a full-size cartoon. There is some evidence (though not documentary proof) that he executed a picture. A Florentine chronicler of the 1540s (the 'Anonimo Gaddiano') included 'una Leda' in a manuscript list of Leonardo's works (though this entry was later crossed through). Vasari makes no mention of such a painting. But the Milanese painter and art-theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo describes a Leda by Leonardo several times in both verse and prose. In the Idea del Tempio (1590) he includes it among Leonardo's few completed paintings and says it was then in the chåteau at Fontainebleau. A Leda by Leonardo is recorded at Fontainebleau in 1625 (when it was described as in poor condition) and in 1694, but the records then cease. The painting recorded at Fontainebleau could have been an original by Leonardo or a copy based on his drawings or cartoon. It might have been destroyed on the grounds of indecency (as MIchelangelo's Leda apparently was) or could have deteriorated beyond repair in Fontainebleau's humid atmosphere.
Leonardo's picture (if it existed) is difficult to date precisely from the surviving drawings, and opinions differ on whether it is likely to have been completed in Florence (1505-6), Milan (1506-13) or Rome (1513-16). The version in the Uffizi is regarded as one of the earliest and most faithful copies. Often called the 'Spiridon Leda' after a previous owner (Cavaliere Ludovico Spiridon of Rome), it was acquired by Hermann Goering around 1940 and recovered from Germany after the War. It entered the Uffizi in 1989. It has been attributed to a Milanese follower of Leonardo (Cesare da Sesto or Francesco Melzi) or, more recently, to a Florentine assistant (possibly a certain 'Ferrando Spagnolo' who worked with Leonardo in 1505 in the Palazzo Vecchio).
There is another well-known copy in the Borghese Gallery at Rome. The main figures are almost identical to those in the Uffizi version, but just one pair of twins is shown and the landscape is different (without the outcrop of rock on the left). Long ascribed to Leonardo himself, it was later given to Sodoma (an attribution first suggested in the late nineteenth century by Giovanni Morelli), but is now classed simply as the work of an anonymous follower of Leonardo. A version at Wilton House, near Salisbury, has the four children of the Uffizi version but a different landscape. It has been attributed to Cesare da Sesto. Of the other old versions and variants, undoubtedly the finest is that attributed to Andrea del Sarto at Brussels.
Copy of the 'Battle of Anghiari' (Tavola Doria). Wood, 85 x 115.
In autumn 1503, the Florentine Signoria under Pietro Soderini commissioned Leonardo to paint a fresco of the Battle of Anghiari for the Palazzo Vecchio. The huge picture (perhaps as large as 7 x 17.5 metres) was to occupy half of one wall of the newly built Sala del Gran Consiglio and was to have as its pendant Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina. Leonardo appears to have painted only the central section of the composition, which showed a ferocious struggle between four horsemen as the Florentines captured the enemy standard. Leonardo did not use traditional fresco but experimented with an oil or encaustic technique. The paint ran and would not dry. The work was abandoned in spring 1506, when Leonardo returned to Milan. What remained of the picture was covered over by Vasari around 1563-65 to make way for the present series of murals. Leonardo's cartoon, which survived as late as the eighteenth century, has also disappeared.
The so-called Tavola Doria is considered the best of several early painted copies of the wall painting. It was sold by the Doria d'Angri family of Naples in 1940, illegally exported and acquired (in good faith) by the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum in 1992. An agreement was reached in 2012, whereby the picture was to be loaned to Japan for a four-year period (2014-18) but ultimately returned to Italy. Another early painted copy hangs in the Palazzo Vecchio museum (transferred from the Uffizi in 1953).
The most famous copy of the Battle of Anghiari is undoubtedly the drawing by Peter Paul Rubens in the Louvre. The large ink and chalk drawing (45 x 64) was made around 1603, well after the fresco had been covered up, and was probably based on an engraving of 1553 by Lorenzo Zacchia.
London, National Gallery.
*Virgin of the Rocks. Wood, 190 x 120.
The central panel of the altarpiece of the Chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in San Francesco Grande at Milan. It was originally ordered by the confraternity from Leonardo and the half-brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis on 25 April 1483. But its production was very long drawn out and involved a legal dispute that was only resolved in 1506, when the central panel was still unfinished. The panel was set into a pre-existing elaborate frame made by the sculptor Giacomo del Maino, together with a wooden statue of the Virgin (also carved by del Maino) and two panels of Angels (one attributed to Ambrogio de Predis and the other to another assistant, and both also now in the National Gallery). There is another version, earlier in style, in the Louvre. How much of the London version Leonardo executed himself is disputed. It was once often believed (particularly before the picture was cleaned in 1948-49) that it was either entirely the work of Ambrogio de Predis or that Leonardo painted only a few parts himself (including the beautiful angel’s head). But recent opinion often ascribes most of the execution of the figures (though not of the rocky background) to Leonardo. The picture appears to be slightly unfinished in places (eg. the angel’s right wing and hand supporting the Christ Child’s back, and the Child’s right hand). The gold haloes and St John’s cross do not appear in the Louvre version and may be later additions. X-rays have recently revealed a drawing of a kneeling figure under the paint surface, suggesting that Leonardo at first considered painting an Adoration of the Child. Bought in Italy by Gavin Hamilton for the small sum of thirty ducats, and later owned by the Earl of Suffolk, who sold it to the National Gallery in 1880 for £9,000. Cleaning in 2009-10 removed old varnish, applied after the previous restoration sixty years earlier, which had cracked and yellowed. The present frame was constructed only recently, but incorporates the carved and gilded pilasters and cornice from an original early sixteenth-century North Italian tabernacle frame.
*Virgin and Child with St John and St Anne ('The Burlington House Cartoon'). Paper mounted on canvas, 142 x 106.
The fragile cartoon, drawn with charcoal and chalk on eight sheets of paper glued together, is not pricked or incised for transfer to panel, and there is no evidence that it was ever used for a painting by Leonardo or his pupils. It is probably earlier than the painting in the Louvre, which differs considerably in composition, but the dates of the two versions are controversial. One theory is that the London cartoon was drawn in Milan in response to a commission from Louis XII made immediately after the French king entered the city in October 1499. (Louis XII had good reason to commission a painting of St Anne at this time, as he had just taken Anne of Brittany as his second wife.) Another theory is that it belongs to Leonardo’s second Florentine period and was drawn in connection with the commission for an altarpiece for the church of Santissima Annunziata. Yet a third theory – one currently favoured – is that it was drawn in Milan in 1507-8 in response to a later commission from the King of France. An oil painting by Luini based on the cartoon is in the Ambrosiana, Milan. The cartoon is said to have still belonged to Luini’s son, Aurelio, in 1585. It was brought to Venice by John Udny before 1763, and by 1791 it was in the Royal Academy’s collection in London. Purchased by the National Arts Collections Fund and presented to the National Gallery in October 1962, after £800,000 had been raised by public subscription. The cartoon had already been patched, restored with chalk and charcoal and pasted onto canvas before it was transported to England in the 1760s, and further restorations were done at the Royal Academy in 1791 and 1826. The cartoon was slightly damaged in June 1962, during the public appeal for its acquisition, when a man threw a bottle of ink at it, cracking the perspex shield. It was more seriously damaged in July 1987, when an unemployed ex-soldier fired a sawn-off shotgun at it, pulverizing part of the protective laminated glass. The damaged area (some six inches in diameter and near the Virgin’s left breast) was painstakingly restored, a surgical needle and tweezers being used to replace tiny fragments of detached paper.
Replica of the Mona Lisa. Wood, 76 x 57.
This version of Leonardo's iconic portrait came to the Prado in 1819 from the Spanish royal collection. It was formerly considered to be an old Spanish or Flemish copy. However, following recent restoration and technical analysis, it is now claimed to be a contemporary replica executed in Leonardo's workshop. Black overpaint has been removed from the background, revealing a well-preserved landscape. The underdrawing revealed by X-rays is similar to that of the Mona LIsa, suggesting that the replica and the original could have been produced at the same time. The newly restored picture was unveiled at the Prado in February-March 2012 and then loaned to the Louvre for its exhibition The St Anne: Leonardo da Vinci's Last Masterpiece.
Portrait of a Musician. Wood, 43 x 31.
This is the only male portrait attributed to Leonardo. It is unfinished: the face and hair seem near completion, only lacking some final touches, but the clothes are only roughly brushed in and the hand is quite sketchy. The portrait is first recorded in a 1672 guidebook to the Ambrosiana as a Duke of Milan by Leonardo, but a 1686 inventory reattributed it to Bernardino Luini. In the nineteenth century it was thought to be a portrait of Lodovico Il Moro and a companion to the so-called portrait of Beatrice d’Este also in the Ambrosiana. This identification was proved false when the lower part of the picture was cleaned of repaint in 1905, revealing that the sitter was a musician holding a score. The sitter was then identified as Franchino Gaffurio, the choirmaster of Milan Cathedral, for whose Practica Musica (1496) Leonardo designed woodcut illustrations. This identification was widely accepted for a time; however, the sitter seems rather young for Gaffurio (who was born in 1451 and moved to Milan in 1484 at the age of thirty-three). Other suggestions for the identity of the youthful musician include Josquin des Prez (the French composer, who is known to have been in the service of the Sforza in the 1480s), Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa (a lutist and singer, whose pupils included Isabella d'Este) and Atalante Migliorotti (a Florentine lutist and instrument maker, who is said to have been taught music by Leonardo and to have accompanied him to Milan in 1482-83). In the past, the portrait has often been ascribed to Ambrogio de Predis or to Boltraffio or been considered a work of collaboration between Leonardo and an assistant. However, it has been accepted as an autograph Leonardo by a number of recent writers, including Pietro Marani in his 2000 monograph, and dated around the mid-1480s. The panel is walnut – which was favoured by Leonardo but rarely used by Lombard painters.
Portrait of a Young Woman (Beatrice d’Este?). Wood, 51 x 34.
This profile portrait of a young woman – whose head and neck are adorned with pearls to establish her wealth and status – was in the collection of the Ambrosiana’s founder, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, where it was described in 1618 as a portrait of the ‘Duchess of Milan … by the hand of Leonardo’. The sitter was traditionally assumed to be Beatrice d’Este (Isabella d’Este’s younger sister who married Lodovico Sforza in January 1491 at the age of fifteen and died in childbirth in January 1497). Many other identifications have been proposed, including Bianca Giovanni (Lodovico’s illegitimate daughter), Cecilia Gallerani (his young mistress), Isabella of Aragon (who married Gian Galeazzo Sforza in 1489 at the age of eighteen), Bianca Maria Sforza (sister of Gian Galeazzo who married the Emperor Maximilian in 1493) and Anna Maria Sforza (Gian Galeazzo’s other sister who married Alfonso d’Este in 1491). In the late nineteenth century, Giovanni Morelli reattributed the portrait to Ambrogio de Predis. Some participation by Leonardo in the design and even the execution is still sometimes imagined. (That he experimented with the traditional Florentine format of the pure profile portrait is shown by the pricked drawing of Iasbella d’Este now in the Louvre.)
Milan. Castello Sforzesco. Sala delle Asse.
The Sala delle Asse (Room of the Pikes) is a large vaulted chamber in the northeast corner of the castle. The remarkable mural decoration was designed by Leonardo in about 1498. (A report on 21 April of that year states that: ‘On Monday the large Camera delle Asse will be stripped. The master Leonard promises to finish it in September.’) The walls were painted with great trees, whose roots penetrate underground and whose branches spread out on the ceiling to form a sort of fictive pergola. After the decoration was rediscovered, the ceiling was completely repainted in 1901 by Pietro Rusca, who altered some of the inscriptions. Two fragments of the original wall decoration – monochrome frescoes representing tree roots – were uncovered in 1954.
Milan. Santa Maria delle Grazie.
**Last Supper. Wall painting, 460 x 880.
The scene represents the impact on the Apostles of Christ’s words, ‘One of you shall betray me’. John (swooning), Peter (angrily gripping a knife) and Judas (clutching a bag of money) are on Christ’s right; Thomas (pointing upwards), James (recoiling as though from a blow) and Philip (hands pressed to his chest, asking ‘Lord, is it I?’) are on his left. Above the scene are three lunettes, with the coats-of-arms of Lodovico Sforza and Beatrice d’Este and their sons Massimiliano and Francesco. The painting was being executed in June 1497, when Lodovico wrote to his secretary instructing him to press Leonardo to complete the work. It must have been finished by February 1498, when the mathematician Luca Pacioli described it in his Divina Proportione. It was painted not in true fresco but, like a panel painting, in tempera, applied gradually in layers on primed dry plaster. Damp collected in the plaster, and the paint flaked; so that Vasari already saw nothing but ‘a dull blur’. Further damage was done when a door was cut through the wall in 1652 (removing Christ’s feet), when French soldiers used the refectory as a stable in 1796, and when the refectory was flooded in 1800. The Last Supper narrowly escaped total destruction in August 1943, when the church was bombed. The wall facing the painting collapsed, bringing down the refectory roof. But the painting, which was protected by steel scaffolding and sandbags, was unharmed, apart from the figure of St James the Great (the apostle seated on Christ's left).
The mural has been restored repeatedly: it was repainted twice in the eighteenth century, repainted again in the nineteenth century and restored four times in the twentieth century. The meticulous last restoration, carried out from 1980 to 1999, attempted to remove all later repainting. It was estimated that only about 20 per cent of the original paint surface remained. Gaps were painted in with watercolour, giving the picture a misty appearance.
According to Vasari, Leonardo also painted the portraits, now nearly effaced, of Duke Lodovico and Duchess Beatrice keeling with their children at the foot of Donato da Montorano’s fresco of the Crucifixion (1495) on the opposite wall.
The many copies of the Last Supper by Leonardo’s Milanese pupils and followers attest to its early fame. A fresco in the church of Sant’Ambrogio at Ponte Capriasca, near Lugano, has been attrbuted to Cesare da Sesto or Francesco Melzi. A version on canvas in the chapel of the Château d’Ecouen, north of Paris, is possibly the copy ordered in 1506 from Marco d’Oggiono by the apostolic protonotary Gabriel Gouffier. It is somewhat smaller than the original. Another copy on canvas, once in the refectory of the Certosa at Pavia, was acquired by the Royal Academy in 1821 and is currently on display at Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford. It was originally full size, but has been cut down substantially at the top and sides. It is a particularly faithful copy, showing details that are not now visible in the original, and was taken to Milan to aid in the restoration work. Formerly attributed to Marco d’Oggiono or Boltraffio, it is now usually given to Giampietrino or regarded as a product of several hands. A well-preserved, full-size copy on canvas in the abbey at Tongerlo, near Antwerp, is sometimes ascribed to Andrea Solario.
Munich. Alte Pinakothek.
*Madonna with a Vase of Flowers. Wood, 62 x 47.
The blood-red carnation the Virgin hands to the Child symbolises his future sacrifice. Nothing is certainly known of the history of the picture before it was acquired (as by Dürer) by a Dr Albert Haug for just 22 marks at a Bavarian auction. Shortly afterwards, in 1889, Dr Haug sold the painting for 800 marks to the Munich Museum. It was immediately claimed as a lost painting of a Madonna mentioned by Vasari in his Life of Leonardo: ‘a very fine work which came into the possession of Pope Clement VII; one of the details in this picture was a vase of water containing some flowers, painted with wonderful realism, which had on them dewdrops that looked more convincing than the real thing’. This picture may have been painted for Pope Clement’s father, Giuliano de’ Medici, and it has been (romantically) suggested that the Virgin represents his mistress Simonetta Vespucci. Giovanni Morelli dismissed the Munich picture as a copy. Other critics, including Berenson, ascribed it to Lorenzo di Credi. The attribution to Leonardo was revived by Adolfo Venturi in his monumental Storia dell’Arte Italiana (1925). As recently as Wasserman’s 1975 monograph doubts were still being expressed, but the picture is now generally accepted as an authentic early work. It is stylistically probably the closest of Leonardo’s works to pictures produced in Verrocchio’s studio; indeed, it has been suggested that Verrocchio could have been responsible for the original design. As in other very early works by Leonardo, the paint surface has wrinkled, especially in the flesh shadows, because of shrinkage in the many layers of oil pigment. Christ’s right foot was in-painted in the early nineteenth century. Restored in 2006.
**Virgin of the Rocks. Canvas (transferred from panel), 198 x 123.
The Virgin and Child and an angel are seated at the edge of a dark pool. Their attention is focused on a naked little boy kneeling in prayer, who is enfolded protectively in the Virgin's cloak, blessed by the Christ Child and pointed at by the angel. The boy is generally assumed to be the infant John the Baptist, though he has none of the saint's attributes (camel skin, reed cross, scroll or lamb). The Christ Child's cross-legged pose derives from a Roman marble statue, Boy with a Goose, recorded in the Medici collections from the mid-fifteenth century and now in the Uffizi. The figures seem to emerge from the shadows of a mysterious cavern. Through a jagged gap in the rocks behind them, there is a view of a distant lake shrouded in mist and encircled by mountains.
The origin of the picture is unknown. It is first recorded as being at Fontainebleau in 1625. It probably reached the French royal collection – whether by purchase or looting or as a diplomatic gift – from Milan. It has often been suggested that it is the painting commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception of San Francesco Grande at Milan in 1483. It was sold (possibly to Lodovico Il Moro), so this theory goes, either because the Confraternity disapproved of the unorthodox composition or refused to pay the large bonus that Leonardo had demanded, and it was subsequently replaced by a copy – the version in the National Gallery, London, which is documented as having come from San Francesco Grande. Another theory is that it was painted earlier in Florence, and taken by Leonardo to Milan when he moved there in 1482-83. It is conceivably the Nativity, mentioned by Vasari, that was sent by Duke Lodovico to Maximilian I as a wedding gift in 1493. This picture could have gone to France in 1530, when Maximilian’s granddaughter Eleanor married Francis I. The Louvre Virgin of the Rocks is earlier in style than the London version, and has always been accepted as being entirely by Leonardo. It is a damaged picture. The heavy craquelure was probably caused by the transfer in 1806 (when the back of the panel was planed away and the paint layers glued onto a new canvas support). X-rays seem to reveal some sizeable paint losses, which have been concealed by retouching. In comparison with the London version, which has been recently cleaned, it looks distinctly dark and yellowed.
**Portrait of Mona Lisa. Wood, 75 x 53.
This is almost certainly the portrait described by Vasari of Lisa Gherardini, who was born in Florence in 1479 and married Francesco del Giocondo (a wealthy silk merchant and prominent figure in the Republican government) in 1495. Lisa had lost a daughter in June 1499; the dark veil that covers her hair is sometimes interpreted as a mourning veil, but may be worn simply as a conventional mark of modesty. Vasari says the portrait was begun between the time of Leonardo’s return to Florence (1499-1500) and his commencement of work on the Battle of Anghiari (his lost wall painting for the Palazzo Vecchio) in 1503. Vasari says that it took four years to paint and was left unfinished. Vasari's account is corroborated by a note discovered in 2005 in the margin of a volume of Cicero's letters held at Heidelberg University. The note, written by Agostino Vespucci and dated October 1503, confirms that Leonardo was working on a 'head of Lisa del Giocondo' and describes the portrait as unfinished. Leonardo may have put the finishing touches to the painting between 1513 and 1516, when he was working in Rome for Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours. The Mona Lisa is almost certainly the picture, described as a finished portrait of a Florentine woman, seen by Antonio de Beatis, secretary of Cardinal Luigi d'Aragona, when he visited Leonardo's studio at Cloux on 10 October 1517. De Beatis says the portrait was made for Giuliano de' Medici, but that would be an understandable mistake.
There have been many adventurous, fanciful or absurd attempts to identify the sitter as someone else – Costanza d’Avalos, Isabella d’Este, one of Giuliano de’ Medici’s mistresses, Pacifica Brandano, a certain ‘Signora Gualanda’, an ideal beauty, Leonardo’s mother, Leonardo's pupil Salaì and even Leonardo himself in female guise(!). However, substantial proof that the woman portrayed is indeed Lisa del Giocondo is afforded by an inventory of the possessions of Giacomo Salaì, Leonardo’s assistant for thirty years who inherited his pictures. This inventory, drawn up in 1525 after Salaì’s death, includes a painting called ‘La Joconda’ with a valuation of 100 scudi (see Shell and Sironi in the February 1991 Burlington Magazine). The picture was presumably sold by Salaì’s heirs to Francis I (who is said to have paid 12,000 francs for it) when the French king was assembling his collection at Fontainebleau.
In August 1911 the picture was stolen by Vincenzo Perugia, a decorator working in the Louvre, who took it back to Italy. It was recovered, after Perugia tried to sell it to a Florentine dealer, and returned to France in 1913. The picture appears to be in good condition, but layers of dirt and varnish have obscured the original colours and given it a greenish-brown tone. Technical analysis (using X-ray fluorescence) has shown that Leonardo applied up to thirty paint layers, each thinner than a human hair.
There are at least a dozen old copies of the Mona Lisa; one at the Prado is probably the earliest and has been recently attributed to Leonardo's studio. Leonardo or a pupil also created a nude version of the Mona Lisa, known as the Mona Vanna. A finished full-size drawing at Chantilly of a fully naked woman has a somewhat different face, but the same pose as the Mona Lisa. It may have been the prototype for numerous painted versions. The best known, the Donna Nuda at St Petersburg, was attributed to Leonardo until the nineteenth century and is now given to his workshop (or Salaì).
The Mona Lisa was enormously influential. The famous seated three-quarter length pose, with the head tilted slightly forward and the hands crossed, was adopted by Raphael for several celebrated female portraits (the Maddalena Doni, Lady with a Unicorn, La Muta and La Veluta). Through its influence on Raphael, the Mona Lisa helped establish the three-quarter length pose as the standard for both male and female portraits.
**Virgin and Child with St Anne. Wood, 168 x 112.
It is not known when or for what purpose this picture was painted. It could have been started during Leonardo’s second Florentine period (1500-6) and originally been intended as an altarpiece for the Florentine church of Santissima Annunziata. Or it could have been commissioned in Milan by King Louis XII of France (whose second wife’s name was Anne). Its execution was probably very long drawn out, and it is generally believed to have been finished towards the very end of his second Milanese period (1508-13) at the earliest. The composition is based, not on the Leonardo Cartoon in London, but on a cartoon drawn by Leonardo for the Annunziata altarpiece. The cartoon, which Vasari says went to France, is lost, but it is precisely described by Fra Pietro da Novellara, the Carmelite preacher, in a letter of March 1501 to Isabella d’Este. According to Fra Pietro, the Virgin is attempting to part her Child from the lamb, which ‘is the sacrificial animal signifying the Passion’, while ‘St Anne seems to wish to keep her daughter from separating the Child and the lamb, and perhaps is intended to represent the Church’. The picture in the Louvre is first mentioned by Antonio de Beatis, secretary to the Cardinal of Aragon, who saw it on a visit in October 1517 to Leonardo’s manorhouse at Cloux. It is listed, with a valuation of 100 scudi, in the 1525 inventory of Giacomo Salaì’s estate. It did not enter the French royal collection until 1636, when Cardinal Richelieu gave it, along with his Parisian palace, to Louis XIII. Richelieu seems to have discovered it at Casale Monferrato during the war for the succession in Mantua in 1629-30. Cleaning in 2010-11 thinned accumulated layers of yellowed varnish and removed discoloured old repaint from the Virgin’s ultramarine mantle. The restoration was controversial: two members of the Louvre's scientific committee resigned, amidst accusations that cleaning had gone too far, leaving the colours too bright.
*Saint John the Baptist. Wood, 69 x 57.
This enigmatic late work best illustrates Vasari’s criticism that ‘in his anxiety to achieve solidity of modelling in the use of inky shadows … [Leonardo] eventually succeeded so well that his paintings were wholly devoid of light and looked as though they were seen by night rather than clearly defined by daylight’. It is usually assumed to be the ‘San Johanne Baptista jovane’ seen by Antonio de Beatis when, in the company of the Cardinal of Aragon, he visited Leonardo in October 1517 at Cloux. However, this description would apply equally well to the Seated Baptist (altered to a Bacchus at the end of the seventeenth century) also in the Louvre. It is not known if Leonardo took the picture to France with him as a finished painting, or if, despite a paralysed hand, he worked on it there. It went to England in 1641, when it was acquired by Charles I from Roger du Plessis-Liancourt, First Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Louis XIII, in exchange for Holbein's Portrait of Erasmas and a painting by Titian. After Charles's execution in 1649, it was bought for £140 at the ‘Commonwealth Sale’ by the Franco-German banker Everhard Jabach, who was later forced to sell his collection to Louis XIV. The attribution was questioned by Morelli and Berenson at the end of the nineteenth century, but the picture is now unanimously accepted as Leonardo’s last painting. A restoration, the first since 1802, was carried out in 2016. No fewer than fifteen layers of varnish had accumulated on the painting, and nearly half of these were removed. The picture still appears very dark, but the saint's curly hair and fur robe are now more clearly visible. Several early copies and variants exist. Perhaps the best known of these (Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan) is attributed to Salaì, Leonardo's long-term assistant, and has a mountainous landscape rather than plain dark background.
*‘La Belle Ferronière’. Wood, 62 x 44.
This portrait is first recorded at Fontainebleau in 1642 as a portrait of a Duchess of Mantua by Leonardo. Its popular title, the nickname of Francis I's mistress, is the result of a confusion in an old inventory. The identity of the young woman has not been firmly established. The leading candidate is Lucrezia Crivelli – a lady-in-waiting at the Milanese court who became Lodovico Il Moro’s mistress from about 1496 and bore him a son in March 1497. Lucrezia’s portrait by Leonardo is praised in three anonymous Latin epigrams written around 1499-1500. Other, less likely, identifications include Cecilia Gallerani (Lodovico’s mistress before his marriage in 1491, whose portrait by Leonardo is more probably the picture in Cracow) and Beatrice d’Este (Lodovico’s wife). The portrait, which was probably painted in Milan in the 1490s, has often been attributed to one of Leonardo's pupils, usually Boltraffio. But an attribution to Leonardo himself – doubted as recently as the monographs by Goldscheider (1960), Béguin (1983) and Wasserman (1984) – now, finally, seems to be generally accepted. A restoration in 2015 – the first since 1952 – thinned the layers of yellow varnish.
Another version of the portrait was made famous by a court case in 1929. The owners, Harry and Andrée Hahn of Kansas City, sued the art dealer Joseph Duveen, who had destroyed their chances of selling their painting as an authentic Leonardo by telling a newspaper reporter that it was a fake. After a split verdict, Duveen ended up settling out of court. The Hahns' painting remained with their heirs until 2010, when it was sold at Sotheby's, New York, for $1.5 million as the work of 'a follower of Leonardo da Vinci, probably before 1750'.
Bacchus. Canvas (transferred from panel), 177 x 115.
Called ‘St John the Baptist in the Desert’ when first recorded in 1625 at Fontainebleau. By 1702 – with the addition of a panther skin loincloth and vine wreath and the transformation of the cross into a staff – the title had been changed to ‘Bacchus in a Landscape’. Leonardo’s authorship of the picture has long been disputed. Recent opinion tends to favour an attribution either to Leonardo’s workshop (possibly from a cartoon by the master) or to Leonardo himself (perhaps with assistance). Usually dated around 1511-15. A damaged red chalk drawing formerly in the Museo Baroffio at Varese (stolen in 1973) has been sometimes considered a preliminary study by Leonardo for the painting. The drawing is alternatively attributed to Bernardino Lanino, who is credited with a small copy of the painting (24 cm. square) previously in the collection of the Earl of Crawford and now at the National Gallery of Scotland.
Annunciation. Wood, 16 x 20.
The composition of this small panel resembles that of the Annunciation in the Uffizi; the angel is particularly similar. Acquired with the Campana collection (where it was ascribed to Domenico Ghirlandaio), it entered the Louvre in 1863 as a work of Lorenzo di Credi. The attribution to Leonardo, as a very early work, was made independently by the German Wilhelm von Bode (1887) and the Italian Giovanni Morelli (1893). It was widely accepted until fairly recently, although some critics, detecting weaknesses of structure and handling, thought the artist was the young Credi or another of Verrocchio’s assistants. Berenson (1936) relegated the picture to ‘Credi retouched by Leonardo’, Kenneth Clark (1952) concluded that it was entirely by Credi, and in 1983 the Louvre tentatively catalogued it under Credi. Langton Douglas (1944), who championed the Leonardo attribution, established that the panel formed the centre of the predella of an altarpiece in the Cathedral of Pistoia, which is documented as by Verrocchio but appears to have been painted largely by Credi. The predella also included a panel (formerly owned by Langton Douglas himself and now at Worcester, Massachusetts) representing St Donato and the Tax-gatherer.
*Portrait of Isabella d’Este. Paper, 63 x 46.
This charcoal and pastel profile portrait is believed to be the drawing of Isabella d’Este made by Leonardo in late 1499 or early 1500, when Leonardo stayed briefly at Mantua after fleeing Milan. It appears that Leonardo made a replica of the drawing, and left one version at Mantua and took the other with him to Venice to serve as a cartoon for a painted portrait. A year later, Isabella tried unsuccessfully to get Leonardo to send her another copy of the drawing because her husband had given away the one he had left at Mantua. As late as May 1504, she was still trying, through letters to the painter and to intermediaries, to persuade Leonardo make a painting from the cartoon he had taken with him, but it appears that her appeals were ignored. The drawing was bought by the Louvre in 1860 from the Vallardi collection for 4,410 francs as a portrait of an unknown woman. The sitter was identified as Isabella d’Este in 1888 (by Charles Yriarte) on the strength of a comparison with a bronze portrait medal by Giancristoforo Romano. The drawing was subsequently ascribed to Boltraffio, but almost all recent critics have accepted it as Leonardo’s. It has been carefully pricked for transfer and was probably used to make several replicas. It appears to have been cut down substantially at the bottom; a copy in Oxford shows the hands resting on a parapet with a book.
A painted version of the drawing was discovered recently in the collection of an unnamed Italian family. It shows the sitter wearing a golden tiara and holding a palm branch, but is otherwise very similar to the drawing and is almost the same size (61 x 46). The painting is on canvas, which is not known to have been used by Leonardo or his workshop. The Leonardo specialist Carlo Pedretti has expressed the opinion that the newly discovered portrait is largely the work of the master (Corriere della Sera, 4 October 2013). However, few other art historicians have had the opportunity to see the painting, which has been kept in a Swiss bank vault.
Parma. Galleria Nazionale.
Head of a Young Woman (‘La Scapigliata’). Wood, 25 x 21.
An oil sketch in monochrome. Adolfo Venturi (1924) sought to identify the panel with one seen by Ippolito Calandra in 1531 in the room of Margherita Paleologo, wife of Federigo Gonzaga, and later described in a Gonzaga inventory of 1627 as ‘a painted panel of the head of a lady … sketch … work of Leonardo’. Bottari (1942) believed that it was a sketch for the lost painting of Leda, which is known from old copies and preparatory drawings at Windsor. Pedretti (1979) suggested that it might rather be a study for one of the two Madonnas known to have been painted by Leonardo for the King of France in about 1508. A new theory (advanced by Andrea Bayer in the catalogue of the exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible held at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 2016) is that the picture was inspired by Pliny's description of Apelles's unfinished Venus of Cos. Some critics have doubted the attribution, and the work is omitted from the recent monographs by Martin Kemp (2011) and Frank Zöllner (2011). The picture was given to the Parma Gallery in 1839 by the heirs of the painter Gaetano Callani. The popular Italian title, 'La Scapigliata', means 'The Lady with Dishevelled Hair'.
Rome. Vatican Pinacoteca.
*Saint Jerome. Wood, 103 x 75.
The penitent saint kneels in prayer before a crucifix (which is barely sketched in the upper right of the picture) and prepares to strike his breast with a stone he holds in his right hand. His roaring lion lies across the foreground. A distant church, glimpsed through a gap in the rocks in the top right background, may allude to Jerome as a Doctor of the Church. The head of the saint closely resembles two busts of St Jerome (one terracotta and the other stucco) in the Victoria and Albert Museum that are thought to derive from Verrocchio’s workshop. The panel is highly unfinished – executed in ground colouring only – and in poor condition, but it has always been accepted as an authentic work by Leonardo. Because of its similarity to the unfinished Adoration of the Magi, it is sometimes thought to have been painted in the early 1480s, shortly before Leonardo left Florence. But it has also been dated to the later 1480s or to the early 1490s, when Leonardo was in Milan. There are no early records of the picture. It is commonly said to have belonged to the painter Anglica Kauffman, but is first unquestionably documented in Rome in 1827 in the possession of Cardinal Joseph Fesch. (There is an apocryphal story that the panel had been sawn in two, and that one part was discovered being used as a coffer lid in an antique shop and the other part was discovered some years later being used as the seat of a stool in a shoemaker’s shop.) Bought for the Vatican Museums in 1856 by Pope Pius IX from Cardinal Fesch's heirs.
St Petersburg. Hermitage.
*‘Benois Madonna’. Canvas (transferred from panel), 50 x 32.
The flower held by the Virgin is probably a bitter herb or cuckoo flower, the four petals of which symbolise the cross. One of the very few undisputed works by Leonardo from his early, first Florentine period. Possibly one of the pictures referred to in a note dated 1478 on a sketch by Leonardo in the Uffizi (‘I have started to paint two Marys’). It was acquired by an Astrakhan merchant (Alexander Petrovich Sapozhnikov) from a St Petersburg collector (A. I. Korsakov) early in the nineteenth century, and passed by inheritance to M. A. Benois of Petrograd. It was recognised as a work of Leonardo in 1908 when it was included in an exhibition of paintings from private collections in St Petersburg, and was bought by Tsar Nicholas II for the Hermitage in 1914 for the unprecedented sum of 150,000 rubles. Apparently damaged when transferred in1824 from panel to canvas; the mouth, neck and hand of the Virgin, the drapery and background are retouched.
‘Madonna Litta’. Canvas (transferred from panel), 42 x 33.
Most unusually for a panel painting attributed to Leonardo, it is executed in tempera rather than oil. It was bought by Prince Belgioioso in 1784, and is named after the Dukes of Litta, who inherited it in 1813. It was bought in Milan in 1865 by Tsar Alexander II. It was damaged, either on its way to Russia or when transferred from panel to canvas on its arrival there, and retouched. It has been identified with an almost finished picture of the Virgin in profile recorded in a list of Leonardo’s works in his own hand in the Codice Atlantico, and also with a ‘Nursing Madonna’ seen in 1543 by Anonimo Morelliano in the Casa Michiel Contarini in Venice. There is a silverpoint study for the head of the Virgin in the Louvre. The drawing is universally attributed to Leonardo and dated around 1490. Some critics (pointing to the hard outlines, slick modelling and bland landscape) have ascribed the execution of the picture to a Milanese pupil or follower of Leonardo (Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Marco d'Oggiono, Ambrogio de Predis or Bernardino de' Conti). Other critics have accepted the picture as Leonardo’s damaged original or as a work started by Leonardo and completed by one of his pupils.
There has been a recent tendency to attribute the execution to Boltraffio (see, in particular, Maria Teresa Fiorio's 2000 monograph on Boltraffio). The existence of preparatory studies attributed to Boltraffio for the head of the Christ Child (Institut Néerlandais, Paris) and for the Virgin's drapery (Kuperferstichkabinett, Berlin) provides evidence that he was also involved in the picture's design. The Leonardo attribution has, however, been retained by the Hermitage, and it was endorsed when the picture was included in the major exhibition (Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan) held at the National Gallery, London, in 2011-12.
Turin. Biblioteca Reale.
Self-Portrait(?). Paper, 33 x 22.
This red chalk drawing provides the iconic image of Leonardo, and is almost invariably reproduced when a picture of the artist is required. With his long and curly hair, falling over his shoulders, his exceedingly long beard, falling down his chest, his aquiline features, his broad forehead and piercing gaze, the elderly sitter has the air of a philosopher or prophet. The drawing was first identified as a self-portrait in the nineteenth century – largely on the strength of a resemblance to the head of Plato in Raphael's fresco of the School of Athens in the Vatican Stanze. (The resemblance is undeniable, but the identification of the head of Plato as a likeness of Leonardo is itself hypothetical.) The best authenticated portrait of Leonardo is an inscribed drawing, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, which was probably drawn from life by Leonardo's pupil and heir Francesco Melzi. The Windsor drawing seems to have been the source of the woodcut portrait of Leonardo in Vasari's Lives. It shows Leonardo with very long hair and beard, as in the Turin drawing, but in pure profile, so facial features are difficult to compare. The Turin drawing is usually dated around 1512-15, before Leonardo's departure for France. The artist would then have been in his late fifties or early sixties, whereas the sitter in the drawing looks older. There is no record of the drawing before 1839, when it was one of a great many drawings acquired by King Carlo Alberto of Savoy from the Turin art collector Giovanni Volpato. It was preserved in storage at the Biblioteca Reale until 1929, when it was framed and put on permanent public display, with consequent damage from exposure to sunlight. During the Second World War, it was transported secretly to Rome to prevent it falling into German hands. The drawing is now very fragile, much yellowed and with heavy foxing. It is rarely shown (the last occasion was October 2014 to January 2015).
Washington. National Gallery.
*Portrait of Ginevra dei Benci (?). Wood, 42 x 37.
Shortened at the bottom; the sitter may originally have had hands, like the marble bust of the lady with flowers attributed to Verrocchio in the Bargello. The portrait, too, was ascribed to Verrocchio by the famous nineteenth-century Italian connoisseur Giovanni Morelli, and for a time this was more or less accepted (eg. in the early editions of Berenson's Florentine Painters). The attribution to Leonardo was published in 1896 by Wilhelm von Bode, who identified the picture with a portrait, mentioned by Vasari, of Ginevra dei Benci, arguing that the juniper in the background was introduced as a play on her name. If this identification is correct, the portrait cannot, as Vasari says, have been painted during Leonardo’s second Florentine period (1500-6), when Ginevra would have been in her forties. Some critics have dated it 1474, when she was married to Luigi Bernardi di Lapo Nicolini at the age of sixteen. The back of the panel is decorated (on imitation red porphyry marble) with a wreath of palm and laurel, a sprig of juniper and the Latin motto ‘beauty adorns virtue’. The device has been identified as belonging to Bernardo Bembo, Venetian poet and humanist, ambassador to Florence and father of Pietro Bembo. Bernardo Bembo had a platonic love affair with the young Ginevra which was celebrated in Petrarchean poems; and it may have been Bembo, rather than Ginevra’s husband, who commissioned the portrait.
When Ginevra died in 1520, the picture may have passed to her brother Giovanni (who already owned Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi). It had entered the Liechtenstein collection by 1733 (with an attribution to Lucas Cranach). It remained at Vaduz until 1967, when it was sold by Prince Franz Joseph II – allegedly to finance the lavish wedding of his son Hans-Adam II. The price – reputedly $5 million – was then the highest ever paid for a painting. As in other early works of Leonardo, the paint surface has wrinkled in places because of shrinkage in the many layers of oil pigment. The green pigment (copper resinate) used for the juniper and landscape has turned brown. There is a damaged variant of the portrait, sometimes attributed to Lorenzo di Credi, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. It shows the sitter holding a ring, and its dimensions suggest that Leonardo's portrait was cut by a good 6 inches at the bottom.