Art History Mysteries
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Let’s take a look as four paintings that continue to baffle art historians. One is a famous painting with no clear meaning, an unexplained self-portrait with a weird hand gesture, the paradox behind Botticelli’s beautiful model, and a Leonardo da Vinci painting that might not even be by his hand. And one of these mysteries is being made into a Broadway musical.
The Venetian painter Giorgione was a mystery himself. Scholars cannot agree entirely on which paintings are his, or might have been painted or finished by his contemporary Titian. Born north of Venice, Giorgione (1475/77-1510) earned a reputation by the biographer Vasari as a cosmopolitan, sophisticated man with many lovers. Whether that is true or not, we do not know, but the poor fellow died of the plague in his early thirties. His oil painting The Tempest, done at the end of his life, has stumped art historians. Why is a nearly naked woman nursing a baby, sitting on the ground, while a man looks on, and the lightening cracks in the sky with dark foreboding clouds? There doesn’t seem to be a relatable Biblical or contemporary literature source. Most paintings were fairly straightforward in subject matter, religious or mythological. Madonna and child paintings need little explanation.
Zorzi, as he was called in Venetian dialect, may have just painted a “mood” picture of his own making (or his patron’s). When left without direct evidence to decipher a painting, art historians are inclined to speculate. The woman has been thought of as a gypsy, Eve, or Venus, the man as a soldier or shepherd, or the whole scene as an allegory referring to the siege of nearby town of Padua, all which seem rather obscure. An x-ray shows Giorgione painted the man over a naked woman bathing in the stream. That doesn’t help clarify what he intended or why he made a change.
This small painting has inspired many interpretations, book chapters, and journal articles.
In person, the glow of the lighting on the buildings is as striking as the foreground is shadowy and dark. Did the storm pass already or is it approaching? Giorgione’s evocative landscape is replete with atmosphere, and unkempt trees and bushes. A bare root sticks out of the foreground. He places the two figures not at the center, but to the sides, making the storm and cityscape the main pictorial emphasis. The woman turns her head to look right at us. The man maintains his gaze towards the woman. This is not an ideal landscape, but is best understood perhaps as he intended, as ambiguous, which makes this painting very modern in concept.
Giorgione, The Tempest, details.
Raise Your Hand
Italian artists have names that are music to pronounce. Take Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1420-1497) for example, pronounced Ben-oats-so Goats-oly with that characteristic “voiced” Italian zz sound, sort of a “ts” is English. His name is as pleasing as his art. Active mainly in Tuscany, he had a long career of over fifty years, primarily working for the Medici family. Gozzoli came of age in the 1430-40s Florence which was the artistic equivalent of Silicone Valley during the early years of Apple. Innovation, competition, and high-quality artists worked for the hottest commissions. They may not be household names now, but Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Piero della Francesca, Domenico Veneziano, Luca della Robbia, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Filippo Brunelleschi made Florentine masterpieces.
Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) was the head of the clan that ruled Florence. He began building the first Medici palace for his family in the mid-1440s. Cosimo built in a strategic location not far from the Duomo and San Marco. Today it is known as the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi and is a gem to visit and usually not overcrowded. As the papal banker, Cosimo had influential connections. He received special dispensation to build a private chapel with an altar in his palazzo and commissioned Gozzoli to fresco the walls in 1459. The chapel served both as a religious function and an audience hall to meet and greet dignitaries. Piero de’ Medici (1416-69), his son, managed the fresco decorations. Letters between Piero and Gozzoli show how involved Piero was in criticizing the frescoes, selection of elements, and how late he was in paying his painter. Piero was difficult to please and insisted some angels he didn’t like be painted over. It didn’t happen.
The chosen subject was the Procession of the Magi, depicting the entourage of the three “kings” or distinguished emissaries on their way to greet the baby Jesus. The west wall took only 46 painting days as Gozzoli and his crew painted quickly to complete the fresco. Of course, the Medici male family members are inserted as a critical part of the very long procession, dressed in their finery with beautiful horses and expensive fabrics. Gozzoli requested 1500 sheets of Genoese gold leaf to emboss the clothing and the horses’ tack. As Piero wished, nothing was spared to represent the Medici as less than royalty. The procession takes place against a marvelous Tuscan background, the most extensive landscape painting of its day. Due to Gozzoli’s portraiture skills we can identify Cosimo, his illegitimate son Carlo, his legitimate son Piero, Piero’s children Lorenzo (later called the Magnificent), and Giuliano, a victim of the Pazzi Conspiracy. Also admirable are Gozzoli’s renditions of exotic animals that accompany the group. The chapel is small and visitors can see the portraits up close and admire the luxurious clothing, animals leaping and prancing, and the mountainous path leading down to dozens of men in procession.
However, a couple things deserve a closer look. In the foreground there is a black man dressed in fashionable two-toned tights, holding a bow. He strides between two horses in a place of prominence with Cosimo riding a donkey to his left and Piero on the white horse. To his right are two powerful members of the Sforza family, allies of the Medici. Speculation is that he may be Bastiano, a former slave of the Cardinal of Portugal, in his role as a page, or groom. Portugal was an active slave trading nation and the Medici, as well as other prominent families, had black men as stable help, body guards, and for other domestic functions. This is a under researched area in art history. It is rare to see a black man prominently depicted in Italian Renaissance art, especially in a fresco next to rulers. My hope is he was a respected and important person – or was he enslaved? Is he represented as an exotic object, something owned by powerful men, or on par with the rulers he stands next to? These questions are rarely addressed, and should be addressed.
Benozzo Gozzoli, Journey of the Magi, Palazzo Medici Chapel, c. 1459, Florence. Gozzoli self-portrait with red hat (Wikimedia Commons), Gozzoli self-portrait with hand gesture (photo Gerriann Brower). Cosimo de' Medici and Piero de' Medici on horseback, with Piero in the green brocade (photo Gerriann Brower). Standing figure is possibly Bastiano (Wikimedia Commons).
Gozzoli took the opportunity to insert two self-portraits, one on each long wall. In the self-portrait on the east wall he appears lost in the crowd of red hats, and positioned himself between two bearded men. His red cap has an inscription which reads “Opus Benotti” which has double meanings. Opus means work and Benotti refers to Benozzo, but it can also mean ben noti (well done, good job) and noti bene (take note, pay attention). This play on words as well as his sideways gaze seems to say he has no lack of pride in his work.
In the other selfie on the west wall he wears a blue and white turban and a red tunic. Art historians write that he looks over his shoulder and raises his right hand in a gesture showing his ring and middle finger together. There’s lots of speculation about the meaning, or even if it really is his hand. Gozzoli paints naturally and realistically and the idea that he painted himself in such an awkward position is hard to believe. Just try to look over your shoulder and raise your right hand. Doesn’t work. I’ve never seen this gesture before in a painting. Some think it means “Look, I painted this with my own hand.” Or, “See how nimble-fingered I am.” Or he’s imitating the horse’s ears. What do you think? I think his gesture draws attention to his self-portrait, just as he would like it.
The Goddess of Love
Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus long ago achieved icon status on par with the Mona Lisa. Likewise, his equally iconic Primavera, also in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, is thought of as a sister painting to Venus, although it isn’t. The Greek mythological story behind Venus’ birth is not rated PG. The adult woman was born following a grisly event in which her father Uranus had his genitals severed by his son. The son tossed them into the sea which then fertilized the sea, creating the goddess of love. She demurely rides the giant shell to shore while a gentle breeze is created by a nymph and Zephyrus. Hora, one of Venus’ attendants, awaits her with a flowered robe. Everything in Botticelli’s painting seems to float. There’s an airiness and dreaminess that supersedes any concerns with representing mass and gravity. The figures are elongated and lack the muscle mass of a Michelangelo figure. Delicate lines and colors prevail. The painting is as an unreal as the mythological story. The painting is directly pagan in what was still a Christian art culture, and it became a gold standard for Italian mythological painting.
Botticelli (1445-1510) painted during the golden years of Renaissance Florence and worked for a while in the same shop as a young Leonardo da Vinci. His artistic life was intertwined with the Medici. Gozzoli’s first large scale fresco commission depicted the condemned accomplices that killed Giuliano de’ Medici (now lost) in the Pazzi Conspiracy. Pope Sixtus IV was involved in trying to assassinate the Medici rulers but apparently had no shame in asking Botticelli to fresco a side wall in the Sistine Chapel (1481-82) a few years later.
There has long been a fascination with the identity of Botticelli’s Venus. Many of his main female figures have similar features, especially the Madonnas, Venus, and Flora in Primavera. They all have long reddish blond hair, with her head turned to the side, a porcelain complexion, and elongated graceful demeanor. Legend and stories swirl around the identification of the famous Venus. Who was his muse?
Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci (1453-1476) is most often mentioned as the model, a tale that started in the nineteenth century but hasn’t always gotten a lot of credibility with historians, due to lack of secure documentation. However, there is a dotted line that connects Botticelli and Simonetta living on the same street and mixing in the same Florentine social circles.
Simonetta was most likely born in Genoa to a wealthy and powerful family who were exiled in Tuscany and associated with the allies of the Medici. She was chosen as a bride for Marco Vespucci by his father Piero Vespucci (distant relatives of Amerigo Vespucci). Her dowry was very significant, including mineral rights, which were sought after as valuable resources. Piero very much approved of the marriage, mostly for his own benefit, and eventually he abused her wealth and status of his daughter-in-law. In order to win favor with the Medici, he encouraged and fostered an extra-marital affair between Simonetta and Giuliano de’ Medici. He also was accused of being involved in the Pazzi Conspiracy after Simonetta’s death; in essence he was part of a plan to stab her lover to death. His primal instinct to use people got him thrown in prison, appropriately named the Stinche (stin-kay). Unfortunately, Simonetta died very young, two years before her lover’s assassination. Giuliano was quite smitten and bereft. Those are the documented facts, and all else is speculation.
There isn’t any firm evidence that she posed or was memorialized in Botticelli’s paintings. Some propose that Giuliano wanted a remembrance of her and that caused Botticelli to use her as his inspiration. The dates don’t add up. Despite media and TV stories tracing the lineage of Simonetta’s female descendants to the present day, along with their legendary beauty, it is difficult to explain why Botticelli would paint her likeness so long after her death. Six years would pass before he painted Primavera; eight before he began Venus. The Madonna of the Magnificat (c. 1480) in the Uffizi resembles her, but again that is fours years after her death and two years after Giuliano’s death. Artists usually prefer live models for major figures. And it would be almost unheard of for a wealthy noblewoman to pose for painters.
Yes, they lived on the same street. But women did not have the freedom to wander Florence alone, and usually did not frequent the market, or a painter’s studio. We don’t even have documentation as to who commissioned the Venus. It eventually is recorded in a Medici household, but its purpose, often considered to be a wedding painting, is not clear. Painting on canvas is unusual at this time, and frequently was meant for pageants or processions. Yet the legend continues that Botticelli’s Venus and other female figures must be Simonetta. Even with the lack of clear evidence, it does pique one’s interest to know that Simonetta and Botticelli are both buried in the same church of the Ognissanti in Florence. Botticelli is at the foot of her tomb, per his request.
Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, details, 1483-85, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Where is The Savior of the World?
In late 2017 a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) sold at auction for an astounding $450 million. Rarely does an old master painting come to auction, and this was a major art moment since conservatively there are only about 14 confirmed da Vinci paintings extant only by his hand (15 if you count this one). But there are some significant problems with the sale and red flags regarding authenticity. Is the painting really a da Vinci? Who bought it and where is it now? I wrote about the initial sale in 2017 with my doubts about its genuineness, and it’s time for a status update.
You are about to enter the twilight zone. Untangling the history of this painting, its whereabouts from, say, 1500 to present day, as well as conflicting ideas about who painted all/some/parts of is a vortex of information, part facts and part conjecture. In an effort to provide a brief yet readable summary, I will address the ownership history, scholarly conclusions, and the painting’s whereabouts.
The subject of Salvator Mundi is fairly common and consists of Christ looking at the viewer, while raising a blessing hand and holding an orb in the other hand. Leonardo’s painting was long considered lost and is dated anywhere from before 1497 to 1510. His assistants also painted the subject on their own. There are large gaps in the provenance with no precise reckoning of where the Salvator was until it probably ended up in the collection of Charles I of England (r. 1625-49). It doesn’t seem to have been regarded with great reverence like the Mona Lisa, as the painting next shows up in the Sir Francis Cook Collection from 1900-1958, in bad condition. Christ looks stoned and hungover, a far cry from the present restored version.
Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1500. Before restoration, B & W photograph from the Cook Collection; 2006-07 photograph, after cleaning; restored and repainted. All public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
Who Made It. How did the painting, previously lost and off radar for so long, suddenly become a da Vinci? The painting ended up in a private collection in New Orleans, as a copy after Leonardo. It was next heard of in 2005 when purchased for less than $10,000 as a Leonardo copy by two collectors, one of which was Robert Simon, who thought it might be salvageable and perhaps more than meets the eye. Simon and his partner signed a non-disclosure agreement as to who they purchased it from, since the sellers would undoubtedly be in a litigious mood if they found out their painting which sold for about $10k and soon would be sold for over $400 million. The art world is notoriously secretive when it comes to naming sellers and buyers. It underwent restoration and repainting from 2007-11. The skilled renovation, done by esteemed restorer Dianne Modestini, was extensive. After a complete cleaning, she retouched portions of the painting. In 2008 Simon presided over a private meeting of a number of Leonardo and Renaissance art historians that were allowed to view it. The results were mixed, but respected Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp was resolute in his assessment that it is from the master’s hand. He saw it during and after restoration. The finished product, according to Kemp, was undeniably a da Vinci, giving off a vibration of legitimacy, as he sensed the magic of da Vinci’s hand.
Simon, however, declared that there was consensus among the da Vinci experts that it was by the master’s hand. This statement although not in fact true, became the truth. In 2011-12 the painting was included as a genuine Leonardo in the London National Gallery’s 500th remembrance exhibit of his art. Without the repainting, and Kemp’s blessing, I’m not sure it would have achieved this status. It was purchased in 2013 for $127 million by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. In 2017 it became the most expensive artwork sold at auction in less than twenty minutes. There is concern that the painting was included in the exhibit while it was on the market, a taboo in the art dealer world.
The shifting sands of expert opinion on the Salvator Mundi raise more questions. There is a circle of elite da Vinci scholars that are split, or have changed minds, on the authenticity of the painting. Christie’s auction house reported fifteen scholars who supported it as a da Vinci. Very few have substantiated their opinions in peer reviewed scholarly journals. Some have waffled in recent years, or disputed that they gave the thumbs up to authentication. Kemp suggests critics are trying to win press coverage and are ill informed.
François Quiviger writes that it is definitely a workshop painting citing flatness and unimaginative handling of the X-shaped ornamental chest stripe when compared with the deft soft modeling of other Leonardo paintings. It’s difficult to argue with Carmen Bambach, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and author of four volumes on Leonardo. Bambach is the expert on da Vinci drawings. She saw the painting in 2008 and 2011 and states that the London National Gallery and Christie’s were mistaken to include her as attributing it to Leonardo. That has never been her assessment and she confirmed it is by a pupil with only some small additions by Leonardo. She stated that even if it is by Leonardo, it is a minor work. Frank Zöllner on the other hand found the handling of the hair uncharacteristic, which he finds too mechanic, and the pose not dynamic for a Leonardo. The very aspects Kemp found authentic. Zöllner believes it is a high-quality workshop copy that suffered from excessive hype. However, he remarks on the quality of the blessing hand and orb.
A technical study by Steven and Andrea Frank, forthcoming publication in 2021, using convolutional neural networks, shows that the blessing hand, arm, left hand and orb are most likely not by Leonardo. They concluded that the head and upper torso is most likely by Leonardo. Of course, it is common for the master to sometimes do a portion of a painting and leave the minor details to assistants. Are the arms, hands, and orb minor details? Or does it even matter if assistants painted portions since they understood the essence of the master’s intentions?
While this may seem like splitting hairs, the crux of the matter is authentication by connoisseurship, which turned the dial to a “real” Leonardo, and rise in market value. If this isn’t by Leonardo, was the assessment, exhibit, and market value pushed too quickly? Equally perplexing is that none of the experts that examined the painting tried to secure it for their own institution.
Who bought it? The three main bidders at Christie’s auction were from the Middle East with the winning bid by Saudi Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud. Prince Badr is a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS. (MbS was found by US intelligence to have ordered the 2018 death of exiled journalist living in the US, Jamal Khashoggi.)
Many believe Badr was a representative for MbS. When pressed for information on the whereabouts and true owner of the painting after the auction, the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi stated they would be displaying the painting, but not as owners. The Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi may be the purchaser. It hasn’t been seen since the sale, now more than four years ago. Where do you get that kind of money for a large purchase (real estate, Badr said) and why would a Muslim country want a painting of Jesus Christ as Savior of the World? Well, they have been collecting Western art masters for quite a while, and a da Vinci is a real plum of a pick to add to your collection. Rumors abound that the painting is with MbS and will never show up at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
There’s no available documentation or statements about how the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi acquired the painting from the Saudis, if they are the owners. The scheduled 2018 unveiling of the Salvator in the museum was abruptly cancelled without comment. The Louvre (who lends their name to the Abu Dhabi museum) has no idea where it is. Neither the Abu Dhabi museum nor the culture minister will comment. Even Martin Kemp doesn’t know where it is. Art historian and journalist Ben Lewis thinks the painting is locked away safely in a Swiss vault and never made it to Arabia. He also suggests that MbS and Badr never anticipated their identities would be revealed and that is the reason for silence. The COVID-19 pandemic further suppressed any information or transfer of the painting.
Lewis sums it up, writing “the provenance is speculative, the attribution optimistic, the restoration extensive,” while at the same time acknowledging esteemed scholars find some touches of Leonardo in the painting. My guess is that the painting has multiple creators: about 60% by assistant(s), 20% by Leonardo, and 20% repainting/restoration. The public may not be able to view this painting currently, but perhaps soon they can hum a tune about it. The story of the Salvator Mundi painting is being made into a musical. Move over, Hamilton.
Ahl, Diane Cole. Benozzo Gozzoli. Yale University Press, 1996.
Brown, Kate. “The Met’s Leonardo Expert Says ‘Salvator Mundi’ was Largely Painted by the Renaissance Master’s Assistant.” Artnet News, June 3, 2019.
Cole, Alison. “Disarming New Findings on Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi.” The Art Newspaper, January 26, 2021.
Daley, Michael. “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation.“ Art Watch UK online, 14 November, 2017.
Ettle, Ross Brooke. “The Venus Dilemma: Notes on Botticelli and Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci.” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 27, no. 4, 2008, pp. 3–10.
Farago, Jason. “That $450 Million Leonardo? It’s No Mona Lisa.” New York Times, November 15, 2017.
Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Seventh edition. Prentice Hall, 2011.
Kemp, Martin. Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond. Thames & Hudson, 2018.
Kemp, Martin. Leonardo by Leonardo. Callaway, 2019.
Kinsella, Eileen. “’Debunking This Picture Became Fashionable’: Leonardo da Vinci Scholar Martin Kemp on What the Public Doesn’t Get About ‘Salvator Mundi.” Artnet News, June 12, 2019.
Kirkpatrick, David D. “A Leonardo Made a $450 Million Splash. Now There’s No Sign of It.” New York Times, March 30, 2019.
Lewis, Ben. The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting. Ballantine Books, 2019.
Long, Jane C. “Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as Wedding Painting.” Aurora, vol. IX, 2008, pp. 1-27.
Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. Fourth edition. Laurence King, 2011.
Pogrebin, Robin and Scott Reyburn. “Leonardo da Vinci Painting Sells for $450.3M, Shattering Auction Highs.” New York Times, November 15, 2017.
Quiviger, François. Leonardo da Vinci: Self, Art and Nature. Reaktion Books, 2019.
Zöllner, Frank and Johannes Nathan. Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings. Taschen, 2017.
Zöllner, Frank. Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 76, no. 3, 2013, pp. 417–427.