Could This Work Be Leonardo da Vinci’s Only Known Sculpture?

An art scholar argues “Virgin with the Laughing Child” held in a U.K. museum bears the hallmark smile and other techniques of the polymath’s other works

Leonardo Sculpture
Victoria & Albert Museum

Leonardo da Vinci was the master of several mediums: he was a painter, a draftsman, engineer, sketch artist and a muralist. Now, one art historian wants to add accomplished sculptor to that bevvy of accomplishments. Italian academic Francesco Caglioti of University Federico II in Naples believes a 20-inch-tall, red-clay sculpture Virgin with the Laughing Child held by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum since 1858 should be attributed to the master, Jonathan Jones at The Guardian reports.

Caglioti, a well-respected expert on 15th-century, believes Leonardo created the terracotta sculpture when he was a young man working with his mentor, Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Verrocchio.

He points out similarities to da Vinci’s paintings as evidence. The smile of the Virgin in the sculpture, for instance, is reminiscent of the smile of St. Anne in da Vinci’s painting The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. The way the robes drape over the figure’s knees in the sculpture have the same type of movement.

The realistic look of the infant in the sculpture, a laughing Christ child, also shows the same attention to detail da Vinci pays to the faces of children in his other works. In fact, laughter itself may be a clue, Jones reports. Portraying the baby Jesus as a happy, giggling child would have been borderline blasphemous at the time the sculpture was created, and in his notebooks Leonardo records getting in trouble when he was younger for the way he portrayed the baby Jesus.

The V&A is more hesitant about attributing the statue to the master. Currently, the museum considers the statue to be the work of Antonio Rossellino. But Caglioti says that attribution has little evidence to support it and comes from one source, the late British Museum director John Pope-Hennessy who was a Rossellino promoter.

Other art experts also want more evidence. “We do not have any sculptures made by Leonardo, so there is no comparison,” Leipzig University art historian Frank Zollner tells Harris, pointing out that the smile, as the late art historian Ernst Gombrich established, was something that Leonardo himself got from Verrocchio, who in addition to being Leonardo’s mentor, is another of the artists along with Desiderio da Settignano who have been suggested as the sculptor’s creator.

But it’s not unreasonable to think there may be da Vinci sculptures hiding out there. It’s well known that da Vinci worked as a sculptor throughout his life, creating some works in Verrocchio’s studio, though none of his three-dimensional works are known to still exist. In fact, there are many sketches of his greatest unrealized sculptural works. He could never overcome the engineering obstacles to produce his designs for a massive bronze horse he envisioned for Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Similar problems plagued his designs for a massive bronze horse and rider that would sit atop the tomb of Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, who conquered Milan for the French and served as its governor.

This isn’t the only “new” Leonardo to hit the scene recently. Last week, experts cautiously suggested it’s possible that a nude charcoal drawing called “Monna Vanna” may be attributable to the artist. And then there’s “Salvator Mundi” the world’s most expensive painting which fetched $450 million at auction in 2017. Though some art historians have attributed the majority of the work to Leonardo, others argue he only contributed five to 20 percent of the painting.

While the V&A remains cautious on Caglioti’s study, Virgin with the Laughing Child just went on display at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence as part of an exhibition called “Verrochio, Master of Leonardo.” The exhibit will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. later this year, but the purported da Vinci sculpture will not make the trip. But the V&A isn’t closing the door on the scholarship.

“A potential attribution to Leonardo da Vinci was first proposed in 1899, so Professor Caglioti’s study opens up the discussion of its authorship afresh,” a museum spokesperson tells Gareth Harris at The Art Newspaper. “The V&A welcomes ongoing discussion with colleagues worldwide: research into our collections is continuous.”

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