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An Art Historian Says Leonardo da Vinci’s Only Known Sculpture Is in London’s V&A Museum

The new attribution reignites a century-long debate over the authorship of “The Virgin with the Laughing Child,” a Renaissance-era statuette currently attributed to Antonio Rossellino.

“The Virgin with the Laughing Child” (ca 1465) (© Victoria and Albert Museum)

A Neapolitan scholar has attributed a terracotta statuette, called “The Virgin with the Laughing Child,” to Leonardo da Vinci. If his attribution is correct, the work would be the only known sculpture by the Italian Renaissance master in existence. Many, however, are skeptical.

The Art Newspaper reported that Francesco Caglioti, an art history professor at the University Federico II of Naples, attributed “The Virgin with the Laughing Child” to da Vinci in a recent interview with La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper. “There are a thousand details, which dispel any doubts regarding the [new] attribution,” Caglioti said in the interview, noting particularly the depiction of draped fabric and the smiles on the figures’ faces as signature da Vinci.

The new attribution is the latest development in a long-running debate about the authorship of “The Virgin with the Laughing Child,” which belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The museum’s website attributes the 19-inch figure to the artist Antonio Rossellino and dates it around 1465. Over the years, it has been attributed to Rossellino, Leonardo, Verrocchio, and Desiderio da Settignano. Renaissance scholars have never reached a consensus on the subject.

“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 spokeswoman for the V&A told The Art Newspaper. “The V&A welcomes ongoing discussion with colleagues worldwide: research into our collections is continuous.”

Some Leonardo experts doubt Caglioti’s claim. “What is the evidence?” Frank Zollner, professor of Modern and Renaissance Art at Leipzig University, asked The Art Newspaper. “We do not have any sculptures made by Leonardo, so there is no comparison. And the smile? Already Ernst Gombrich pointed out that the Leonardo-type smile is a stock pile accessory which Leonardo inherited from Verrocchio.”

The sculpture is slated to go on show next month, as part of the first retrospective of Leonardo’s mentor, Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88), at the Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence.

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