More than 500 years after his death, Leonardo da Vinci continues to captivate, inspiring art lovers to question the secrets behind the Mona Lisa’s smile and ponder the symbolism of Lady With an Ermine as readily as they did centuries ago.
Given the artist’s enduring popularity, the fact that an Italian scholar’s purported discovery of an unknown Leonardo drawing has captured the art world’s attention should come as no surprise. First reported by Italian news outlet Lecco Today, the find—a red chalk sketch of Jesus—could also shed light on the authorship of Salvator Mundi, which (controversially) sold at Christie’s in 2017 as a resurfaced da Vinci.
Annalisa Di Maria, a Leonardo scholar associated with Unesco’s Florence division, learned of the drawing’s existence when a private collector asked her to attribute it, reports Emanuela Minucci for Italian newspaper La Stampa. Upon viewing the sketch’s dynamic line work and refinement, she immediately suspected that it might be not just a da Vinci, but a study for the actual Salvator Mundi. (Di Maria is one of numerous scholars to cast doubts on the $450 million painting’s attribution; though art historians acknowledge that Leonardo created a work titled Salvator Mundi, they disagree on whether this work is the one that sold at auction.)
“[This] is the true face of Salvator Mundi,” Di Maria tells La Stampa, per a translation by artnet News’ Sarah Cascone. “[It] recalls everything in the drawings of Leonardo: It is his language and speaks loud and clear.”
The art historian adds that looking at the work for the first time was a “breathtaking” experience.
Di Maria argues that compositional aspects of the drawing support its attribution as a da Vinci. The figure is drawn from a three-quarters perspective, much like many of Leonardo’s self-portraits, reports Nick Squires for the Telegraph, and its beard, eyes and other facial features are executed in a style similar to Leonardo’s. Additionally, laboratory testing has dated the paper on which the work is drawn to the early 16th century.
Exactly where the drawing has “been hiding all these centuries” remains unclear, according to the Telegraph. But at least one leading Leonardo scholar is skeptical of the work’s authenticity.
“I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, but I simply can't tell without seeing the drawing and the scientific evidence,” Martin Kemp, an art historian at Oxford University, tells the Telegraph. “I would need to see if it is drawn left-handed. Leonardo drew everything with his left hand.”
Kemp also cautioned against identifying the piece as a da Vinci too quickly.
“I'm not dismissing it, but it has got a long way to go,” the art historian adds. “It would be dangerous to write it off but even more dangerous to accept it at this point.”
Leonardo’s extant oeuvre is limited—a fact that makes claims like Di Maria’s both enticing and likely to attract intense scrutiny. Salvator Mundi, for instance, was credited to Leonardo’s assistant, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, until 2011, when the National Gallery in London exhibited it as a da Vinci. Though Christie's sold the restored work for a record-breaking $450.3 million in November 2017, new theories regarding its provenance and authorship have continued to arise, with a number of experts attributing the painting not to the master, but to his studio.
For now, the newly discovered drawing’s authenticity remains up for debate. Di Maria hopes to justify her attribution by presenting a 60-page paper on the artwork once Italy lifts lockdown restrictions associated with Covid-19.