Interviews

6 Questions for an Art Historian About Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi”

David Nolta doesn’t mince words in his assessment of “Salvator Mundi.” “The sale does not necessarily have any more to do with scholarship than the picture has to do with Leonardo,” he explains.

The Salvator Mundi goes bling (gif by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last week’s Christie’s auction grabbed all the major headlines because of the mind-boggling amount paid for “Salvator Mundi,” a Renaissance artwork the auction house says with certainty is by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. But the conversation hasn’t stopped there. Pundits and scholars have continued to debate whether the Leonardo attribution is accurate.

David Nolta, professor in History of Art and the chair of the Fine Arts 2D department at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (photo courtesy David Nolta)

Most recently, Thomas Campbell, formerly the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, posted an image of a pre-conservation “Salvator Mundi” on his Instagram account with the phrase, “450 million dollars?! Hope the buyer understands conservation issues…”

Old Master dealer Robert B. Simon shot back on the same post, “Dr. Campbell, this is an incredibly ill-informed and mean-spirited comment about one of the most respected painting conservators in the world, one who incidentally spent many years diligently working at your former institution. I personally observed the conservation process on the Salvator Mundi and can attest to the absolute honesty, modesty, and respect that Dianne Modestini brought to her work on the painting — carried out at the highest ethical standards of the profession. Given the prevalence of so many foolish remarks in both serious and social media, I have refrained from responding, but feel compelled to do so now.”

But Campbell wasn’t amused and replied, “my comment was a legitimate response to an extraordinary price. Christie’s doesn’t need your abusive bullying to defend itself. And my comment certainly wasn’t an attack on a highly competent conservator. If you don’t enjoy my occasional Instagram posts then don’t follow me.”

We were curious what art scholars had to say about the painting, so we asked David Nolta, who is a professor in History of Art and the chair of the Fine Arts 2D department at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He has held Kress, Fulbright, and Mellon fellowships, and written about Caravaggio, Francesco de Mura, and other European Old Masters. He offered his perspective on the sale and the object.

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Hrag Vartanian: What short-term impact do you think the Leonardo sale will have on the Old Master field, if any? How about the long-term impact?

David Nolta: I don’t believe that this sale will have any impact at all on the field of the History of Art focusing on Old Masters. Nor do I think it will have any great impact, short- or long-term, on the Old Master market, though of course it might lower standards in terms of what people are willing to buy.

For some time now, the availability of Old Masters — of good pictures with good provenances — has been dwindling, and the stream of good old pictures is today little more than a trickle. Among people whose cultural priority is value, that might mean an increasing willingness to risk money on less trustworthy, not to mention less interesting or attractive, art. This sale, then, with its over-the-top payout, could conceivably push people to view art even more in the light of a lottery than previously. But even that I tend to doubt.

Hrag Vartanian: What is your take on the provenance of the work and the attribution to Leonardo da Vinci?

David Nolta: I cannot speak to the issue of provenance beyond saying that I suppose this might very well be the picture that was in the English royal collection in the 17th century.

As far as the widespread — but widely contested — attribution to Leonardo, I am skeptical, and this is primarily because of the condition of the work, but more importantly, because I trust one scholar above all others on the subject of Leonardo da Vinci, and that is Carmen Bambach, curator of Italian drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the picture emerged and was first exhibited in London six or seven years ago, Dr. Bambach raised the likelihood of it being mainly a work by one of Leonardo’s disciples in Milan, specifically Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. I think that, as invariably on the subject of Renaissance drawing and painting, she is correct. The hair and the straightforward frontality of the figure would be two details supporting such an attribution. This doesn’t mean that Leonardo himself might not have been involved, conceptually and even manually, in whatever in this painting survives from the turn of the 16th century.

One detail that concerns me — even more than the disturbing, clearly damaged, face — is the globe held by the Salvator, which some viewers have praised as patently worthy of Leonardo. For me it sits flat on the surface — and anyone who has seen the moonstones in the breastplate of the angel Leonardo painted in his master, Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ in the Uffizi — not to mention the angel’s eyes — would have some difficulty seeing this globe as attaining anything like that spectral reality. So in sum, I stand by my feeling that there’s as much Leonardo in this Salvator Mundi as there is actual real wrestling in the WWE.

Hrag Vartanian: How do you respond to those who question the fact that Leonardo is not the primary or only artist who worked on the painting?

David Nolta: Most things in life are palimpsests — the works of many hands. For me, more interesting than whether or not Leonardo ever had physical contact with this picture — and far more interesting than its phenomenal but ultimately meaningless sale price, is the third subject here, namely, that the first question (genuine Leonardo?) and the second (how much can be made on it?) are completely separate. That seems relatively interesting — that disassociation of authenticity and value. But the tendency to create interest via Leonardo, which amounts to a craze here, is hardly new. In fact, the great precedent for it is the phenomenon of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which demonstrated (notably, with the same sort of astronomical financial returns as we find in this sale) that what we actually know about Leonardo can be completely disconnected from what we can turn him into (whatever we may not know about Leonardo, one thing we do know about him is that he has absolutely nothing in common with Dan Brown’s version of him). So this sale is right on time, and illustrates another phenomenon: the world’s love of a revival; In this case, a sequel, or the revival, after almost two decades, of Leonardomania.

Hrag Vartanian: Some people are saying the recent sale is the triumph of art world marketing over scholarship. What do you think?

David Nolta: If advertising, rather than the product, is an end in itself, then this is an impressive but hardly unanticipated success. But again, the two fields are completely separate — and that’s what’s interesting. It isn’t as though scholarship and the market have ever spoken the same language, though I suppose that in the past the market was more deferential (for its own ends) to scholarship than they seem to have been here, despite some of the credible scholars and commentators (Martin Kemp, Walter Isaacson, etc.) who have accepted at least the involvement of Leonardo in the Salvator Mundi. But we can hardly interpret this as a triumph of marketing over scholarship — only as a greater distance between the two.

As for the auction itself — a basic fact of the auction world is that you only need two people with money who want the same thing to make for quite a show. The promoters at Christie’s produced a great show, a ‘Star Wars Battle of the Billionaires.’ Leonardo was on the marquee — was, in a way, the arena. None of which has anything to do with scholarship, as far as I can see.

The sale does not necessarily have any more to do with scholarship than the picture has to do with Leonardo.

Hrag Vartanian: What do you think of the painting and what does it tell us, if anything, about the art of the period?

David Nolta: I think, to be frank, the picture is weird, a word I am always careful about using, but I really mean it here. It has something of sfumatura and the inchoate mystery — the quietly fluctuating atmosphere — of works by Leonardo and his “school” in Milan. I like the figure’s right hand. The face, like the face of Christ in the artist’s “Last Supper,” looks, for all the age and abrasions, like it was the site of a struggle for something interesting and otherworldly to emerge. But what we see is still a wreck, far more so even than the “ghost” that is The Last Supper. I think the picture tells us next to nothing about the period, but it certainly tells us a lot about ourselves. And it’s fascinating to remind ourselves that what we’re talking about here, after all — what people are looking at or for in this picture — is a savior of the world! That’s pretty interesting after all.

Hrag Vartanian: What is the one thing you wish we knew about the painting that is still unclear?

David Nolta: If Leonardo had anything to do with this picture, I wish we knew better what, specifically, in terms of emotion and interaction with the viewer, he was aiming at in that face — what his idea of the Salvator Mundi was. If Leonardo had nothing to do with the picture, I’d still like to know what it looked like when (and if) it was finished, and then, too, what was the artist aiming at as the human expression of the divine ruler of all things.

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