Review: The Last Leonardo

the last leonardo

The Last Leonardo, Ben Lewis. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.

Summary: The story of the Salvator Mundi, purportedly the last painting of da Vinci, sold in 2017 for $450 million.

Is it a genuine Leonardo…or not? That is the question running through this book, which traces the history of a painting that sold for the highest price of any work of art to date, $450 million in 2017. It is a painting of a blue-robed Christ with right hand raised in blessing while the left hand holds a crystal orb. It is titled Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Savior of the World”).

In 2005 Robert Simon, a distinguished New York art dealer, acquired the work from a Louisiana gallery for $1175. Painted on a poorly selected panel of wood that was falling apart, and overpainted during its history, it nevertheless caught Simon’s attention. At first he thought it could have originated in da Vinci’s workshop. He spent tens of thousands of dollars having the painting meticulously restored by Dianne Modestini, for whom the work represented part of her recovery from the grief of a lost husband. Art scholar Martin Kemp was brought in to authenticate the painting as was art historian Margaret Dalivalle–Kemp a believer, and Dalivalle increasingly uncertain.

Ben Lewis traces all the elements that go into the authentication of a painting. There are comparisons with established paintings of Leonardo, of which there are less than 20 extant. Things like the rendering of the hair, the fine details of anatomy, the folds of the robe argued for the authenticity. Yet for one who studied optics, the one dimensional character of the orb and the lack of distortion is problematic. Whereas Kemp saw the “zing” of a genuine Leonardo, many other gallery curators, including Sotheby’s back in 2005, failed to recognize it as anything more than a derivative work.

Salvator Mundi

Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Much of the book attempts to establish the provenance of the painting from Leonardo’s workshop to the present. We are left with gaps that, despite Simon’s description, leave the provenance of the painting up for question. There is also the question of the restoration, including how substantial Modestini’s restoration went. In truth, even if the painting was Leonardo’s, what was left was only a fraction of his work.

We also see the tireless and shrewd efforts of Simon, and his later partner Alex Parrish, to promote the painting including arranging a National Gallery exhibition of the painting in 2011 and the maneuverings that finally led to the painting’s sale to Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 for the highest price ever paid for a work of art, only for it to remain in storage in a Swiss vault, hidden away from the world, and the possibility of the painting either being accepted or disproven as an authentic Leonardo, the last Leonardo.

Ben Lewis takes us on a fascinating journey into the rare art world and all the difficulties of condition, style, and provenance of Old Masters. We also see one of the greatest gambles made by an art dealer, and the tremendous return it eventually yielded. Lewis also introduces us to the new reality of art as investment–objects to be stored until they appreciate and not to be displayed. At the end, we are still left wondering, did bin Salman spend the most ever spent on a genuine Leonardo, a product of his workshop, or another talented imitation. It may be that neither he nor we will ever know.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Leonardo da Vinci


Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A biography of da Vinci, from his illegitimate birth, his life long quest for patrons, his insatiable curiosity, his various artworks, and the notebooks, in which are revealed so much of the genius of da Vinci.

This is a magnificent biography in every way. Isaacson delves deeply into the life, the notebooks, the travels, and the works of art of da Vinci and renders an account of the peculiar, dazzling, and flawed genius of Leonardo. This is a book you need to read in print. It is a heavy book because it is printed on high quality paper with ample, full-color Figures rendering the notebooks and artworks of Leonardo. A full-color timeline at the front of the book highlights the works of Leonardo, and the key events of and during his life.

A theme that runs through this book is the insatiable and child-like curiosity of Leonardo, who wonders why the sky is blue (and arrived at a basically accurate explanation of this phenomenon) and wanted to describe the tongue of the woodpecker. He was fascinated with optics, from how the eye works to how light was refracted, and why distant objects appear different in color and distinctness from those closer up. He was an innovator in applying these insights in his use of perspective of his paintings. He did pioneering studies of human anatomy that, if published, would have advanced the understanding of anatomy a hundred years earlier. His fascination with hydraulics resulted in an accurate explanation of the closure of the heart’s aortic valve. His notebooks contain speculations questioning a geocentric universe in advance of Copernicus.

Leonardo was an observer. He not only was curious about everything, but he closely studied the objects of his interest, whether it was the play of light on his subjects, the proportions of the human body, consummately illustrated in his Vitruvian Man, the movements of the wings of a dragonfly, the contractions of the leg muscles of a horse, or the way water flowed in a river. Isaacson notes: “Here’s a test. All of us have looked at birds in flight, but have you ever stopped to look closely enough to see whether a bird moves its wing upward at the same speed as it flaps it down? Leonardo did….”

Leonardo had the ability to draw upon everything he knew with anything he did. This was one of the things that made him such a fascinating subject for Isaacson, who writes, “I embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines-arts and sciences, humanities and technology-is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius.” His study of light and optics shows up in his use of sfumato in painting, where objects are not defined by hard lines, but gradual shadings of tones into one another. He sees analogs between root and branch systems in plants and the human circulatory system. His anatomical studies culminate in the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa and his anatomical drawings are themselves works of art.

Isaacson also traces the peculiar genius of Leonardo, who conceives of giant cross bows, flying machines, and engineering projects, all of which are never executed. He was a path-breaking scientist who never published the results of his studies. Thankfully, even after 500 years, we still have 7200 pages of his notebooks. A number of his paintings were never “finished” and even Mona Lisa was still in his studio when he died. He abandoned commissions that he never finished. He experimented with techniques of mural painting that were spectacular failures and have challenged preservation efforts ever since.

Isaacson candidly discusses Leonardo’s personal life without becoming lurid. He covers his illegitimacy, his ambivalent relationship with his father, and his homosexuality, including his relationship with his apprentice, Salai. He traces his lifelong quest for patrons, courting the various powerful families of Florence and Milan, and ending with King Francis I of France, who, legend has it, cradled the head of Leonardo in his death throes (a legend that has been questioned).

The author concludes with lessons from Leonardo’s life, some that run through this review. Even if you don’t buy this book, I would encourage you to peruse these. The front cover jacket copy refers to Leonardo as “history’s most creative genius.” Isaacson’s biography makes that case, and does so with exquisite writing, typography and graphic design. This one’s a keeper!