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‘Mounting an exhibition about Leonardo da Vinci is an act of hubris’

20 June 2018

The regrettable marketing frenzy and media hype that surrounded last autumn’s sale of the Salvator Mundi for a hallucinogenic price inevitably casts a lurid glow on any claims of a newly discovered work by Leonardo da Vinci. The catalogue of an exhibition we are opening at the Yale University Art Gallery in June – Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio, Early Paintings and New Attributions – supports at least seven such claims for paintings in Paris, London, Berlin, Edinburgh, and Worcester (MA). Some of these paintings are well known, others have scarcely ever been seen. All of them have been attributed to Leonardo at one time or another; none has ever found broad acceptance as his work. Yet the claims for their authorship are neither opportunistic nor absurd, and as all seven paintings have long been in public collections, venality is not at issue. What is at stake is an unconscious habit of complacency in art history in general, a tendency to confuse opinions with information and accept both as of equal value.

In the case of Leonardo, specifically of his early career in Florence, a notion persists that any painting falling short of conventional criteria for admission to the canon must be by Lorenzo di Credi simply because Vasari said that Lorenzo was fond of imitating Leonardo, his friend and fellow pupil in Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio. In reality, an unbridgeable gulf separates Lorenzo’s propensity for copying Leonardo’s images from his inability to fathom the intellectual bases upon which those images were constructed. This is one of the themes of the Yale exhibition, along with two other premises: first, that Leonardo must initially have learned to paint in tempera, not oil, but the grounds for identifying his efforts in that medium have not been properly articulated; and second, that nearly everything that emerged from Verrocchio’s studio is collaborative, paintings as well as sculpture. The most gifted among his many collaborators was the young Leonardo da Vinci, whose earliest efforts as a student have lain hidden in plain sight for generations.

A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo, (c. 1479), attributed to Lorenzo di Credi and Leonardo da Vinci, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts

A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo (c. 1479), attributed to Lorenzo di Credi and Leonardo da Vinci. Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts

Mounting an exhibition about Leonardo da Vinci is an act of hubris. One must test the patience of those few and privileged stewards of his rare paintings and of the beleaguered keepers of his magnificent drawings, works that are requested for loan more frequently but with far less hope of success than perhaps those of any other artist. It is necessary to grapple with a massive if repetitive bibliography and to brace for the critical scrutiny of one’s peers and the tabloid curiosity of a wider public. As such, it has taken 23 years to progress from having noticed that the Worcester Art Museum’s Miracle of Saint Donatus, modestly attributed to Lorenzo di Credi, is actually by two different artists, one of whom was Leonardo da Vinci – something that seems to have escaped the attention of every Leonardo scholar who never bothered to travel to Worcester, Massachusetts (presumably, the overwhelming majority of writers on the artist). Two exhibitions this year will explore the story in greater depth: ‘The Mystery of Worcester’s Leonardo’ at the Worcester Art Museum (until 3 June), followed by the more comprehensive exhibition at Yale (29 June–7 October).

The Worcester exhibition, organised by Rita Albertson, focuses on three paintings, two by Leonardo and one by Lorenzo di Credi (to prove that he cannot be the author of either of the first two). The unfortunately restrictive budget Worcester was forced to adopt left no room for supplementary loans or the publication of a catalogue so I assembled a larger exhibition at Yale which, thanks to the unstinting generosity of our colleagues at the Louvre, above all Vincent Delieuvin, adds to these three works five more paintings and four sculptures. One of these, from the Musée Jacquemart-André, is, like the Worcester panel, a collaborative effort by Leonardo and another artist. Others are works by Verrocchio, with or without assistants, and imitations they inspired by artists in his circle.

The catalogue is considerably more wide-ranging than the exhibition ever could have been. The quincentenary of Leonardo’s death in 2019 is being observed at any number of great museums with displays of the artist’s work, which meant from the outset that no drawings would be available for loan to New Haven. Additionally, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence had long been planning a major monographic exhibition of the sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio, scheduled to open in Washington in October 2018. Washington decided to ask for all the major paintings attributed to Verrocchio as well, and exercising its very considerable political clout succeeded in persuading London, Berlin, and Edinburgh to lend four of their treasures – four paintings that I believe were painted in collaboration with Leonardo. Consequently, I asked Worcester to reschedule its exhibition slightly so that Yale could squeeze its venue between their closing and Washington’s opening. I hoped to persuade London to permit its masterpiece, the Virgin and Child with Two Angels, to travel to both exhibitions in New Haven and Washington as it would involve only a single transatlantic journey. At the last minute, however, Washington postponed its exhibition to the autumn of 2019, taking all its committed loans to the new timeslot and making it impossible for London to send its painting to Yale as well. Washington also refused the loan of its small Dreyfus Madonna, a painting very little esteemed within its own walls, where it is labelled as a work by Lorenzo di Credi and double-hung at a height that makes it almost invisible, even though it is recognised nearly everywhere else in the world as an early work by Leonardo.

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels, Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels (c. 1468–70), Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci. Courtesy National Gallery, London

Any exhibition may be judged on the basis of both what it contains and what it chooses to omit. Frequently, however, omissions are not acts of discernment but forces of nature. The lessons in visual thinking propounded this spring and summer at Worcester and New Haven are strong enough to be conveyed in the selection of objects available there. It is unlikely that scholars will accept all of these lessons but hopefully this will be the first of many subsequent efforts to arrive at ever more persuasive conclusions. To begin with, visitors to Washington’s Verrocchio exhibition next year will be able to see together – for the first time ever and very possibly for the last time – four of the cornerstone works on which this argument is founded. Who knows how they will be labelled on that occasion.

‘Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio’ is at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, from 29 June–7 October. 

From the April issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here