An early ‘Mona Lisa’ dated to 1503, 10 years before Leonardo’s version at the Louvre (courtesy Wikimedia)

SINGAPORE — This is a tale of two Leonardos — or rather one possible Leonardo and one definite da Vinci. Singapore, which had never had an exhibition of the work of the Italian artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci until late last year, recently had two, and each was a revealing portrait of the country today.

The first story is one of commerce and a quest for authenticity. In the shadow of the gargantuan Marina Bay Sands complex sits Singapore’s former parliament, a beige neoclassical building that housed the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci’s Earlier Mona Lisa up until last month. It purported to present Leonardo’s first, unfinished, attempt at a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, dated to 1503, 10 years before the Louvre’s version (copies of the Mona Lisa have long provoked strong divisions).

‘Virgin of the Rocks’ by Andrea Bianchi (Circa 1615-18) (click to enlarge)

‘Virgin of the Rocks’ by Andrea Bianchi, based on da Vinci’s painting of the same name (circa 1615-18) (click to enlarge) (all images courtesy Maria Bay Sands unless otherwise noted)

The painting was unearthed in an English country house a century ago and its subsequent owners have managed to garner some academic support and scientific evidence for its authenticity, which were all on show before you got to greet the painting yourself.

“97 per cent of experts believe that Leonardo da Vinci possibly or certainly painted two Mona Lisa’s,” a bold sign declared. Also on view was the analysis of the levels of light and shade on Lisa’s face in the two pictures — apparently identical. And there was even a machine that took a photo of you and then aged you by 10 years to show you that you’d look the worse for wear, just as the later Mona Lisa does.

Finally, you entered the parliament chamber itself, its arrays of leather benches dark in the moody lighting, where the painting sat on the dais. I won’t keep you in suspense: this picture isn’t by Leonardo. For a start, this Lisa’s features and clothes are much too much like the real one: no artist would exactly duplicate an earlier work — but an earnest copyist would. The brushwork is heavy. And a blotchy tree in the background disfigures the whole image.

Natural Science gallery

Installation view of ‘Da Vinci: Shaping the Future’ at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands

So why was this pseudo-Leonardo in Singapore? Although the “international consortium” which owns the picture denies they took it to Singapore on a tour to bolster their claim for its authenticity, it’s plain that if the work were accepted as authentic it would be worth 10 or 100 times what they paid, so it was in need of a receptive city to firm up its credentials. Accessible to wealthy Asian collectors and relatively deprived of the masters of Western art, Singapore made even an inauthentic Lisa welcome. She smiled wryly at the fuss.

Back at the Marina Bay Sands, in the basement of its ArtScience Museum is the show Da Vinci: Shaping the Future, which explores Leonardo’s achievement and ideas as mathematician, scientist, architect, and so on. The first unusual thing is the name: no serious institution would call him da Vinci — as someone once pointed out, it’s as if Jesus were called ‘of Nazareth.’

Drawing of a mechanical wing by Leonardo da Vinci (Circa 1490) (1) (click to enlarge)

Drawing of a mechanical wing by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1490)  (click to enlarge)

The show can at least claim to have real work by Leonardo: it culminates in a dark and mirrored room with a reverent display of 13 pages of his Codex Atlanticus, a gigantic collection of leaves from his notebooks covering everything from plants and planes to music and maths, sometimes on a single sheet.

Leonardo is the perfect person for the ArtScience Museum, says its director, Honor Harger, since he combines both disciplines: “In many ways he’s our patron saint. We arranged the show in a way that makes it resonant and relevant to our audience in Southeast Asia.” It brings out, she says, how he was “an innovator and an inventor and a maverick,” someone supremely “forward-looking.”

Singaporeans meandering through the show might think of someone else who projects himself as an innovator and maverick. Lee Kuan Yew, “founding father” of Singapore, turned an island at Malaysia’s foot with no natural resources into the current beacon of prosperity and security. Indeed, one of the exhibits in the show is a model of the ideal city, as designed by Leonardo, and what has Lee Kuan Yew built if not the ideal city?

Original pages of the Codex Atlanticus

Original pages of the ‘Codex Atlanticus’ by Leonardo da Vinci

I would not claim the show has this analogy in mind, but Singapore’s more alert citizens —seeing such a master planner and polymath — can hardly fail to recognize it.

It seems to me that these two exhibitions — one authentic but didactic, the other ambitious but insubstantial — provide a neat summary of Singapore today: a hub for commerce and wealth in Southeast Asia, a dream city importing Western ideals of culture even if they’re not entirely genuine. It may be Lee Kuan Yew’s ideal city, but I don’t think it’s Leonardo’s.

Drawing of a giant crossbow by Leonardo da Vinci (Circa 1485–92)

Drawing of a giant crossbow by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1485–92)

Da Vinci: Shaping the Future continues at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands (10 Bayfront Avenue, Singapore) through May. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Earlier Mona Lisa was on view at the Arts House in Singapore’s Old Chambers of Parliament (1 Old Parliament Lane, Singapore) through February 11. The painting and accompanying exhibition will travel to Hong Kong before touring other cities.  

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Josh Spero

Josh Spero is editor of finance magazine Spear's, art critic at Tatler and author of the forthcoming book Second-Hand...