There's nothing unusual about discoveries of lost works by Leonardo da Vinci. Every few months, it seems, a story hits the news that yet another "Leonardo" has been unearthed—the lost fresco of the Battle of Anghiari , a terra-cotta bust discovered in the attic of a 14th-century palazzo, or a self-portrait embedded in the spidery script of one of his notebooks. A recent television documentary even made a claim for the artist's authorship of the Shroud of Turin.

Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, calls the perpetrators of such dubious attributions "Leonardo loonies" and says he gets "bombarded" with them almost daily.

What is exceedingly rare, however, is for a noted Renaissance scholar to bring forth evidence, patiently argued and carefully annotated, that a work previously thought to be by a lesser light is actually an effort by the young Leonardo. That is the case with Gary M. Radke's recent announcement that two silver figures, from a 12 1/8-inch by 16 1/2-inch altar panel made for the Baptistery in Florence, Italy, were more likely created by Leonardo than by his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio.

The two figures in question, an angelic-looking youth holding a salver at the far left of the relief and a fierce, turbaned warrior, second from right, stand out from the others in the scene for their greater expressiveness and naturalistic detail—the way things move and react to the elements. Both qualities are hallmarks of Leonardo's work. Take the epaulets on the two soldiers on the right of the panel, says Radke. On Verrocchio's helmeted figure they are stiff and rigidly patterned, while on the turbaned soldier they appear to ripple as if in response to the figure's movements. Or the hair, which curls on both "Leonardo" figures according to the laws of nature instead of falling into predictable ringlets. A comparison of the reverse side of the relief's sculptures—never meant to be seen—shows the artist paying attention to how a leather skirt might fall instead of fashioning a cursory swath like Verrocchio's. (Leonardo fans can judge for themselves when the work is shown in the exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius," curated by Radke, at Atlanta's High Museum, for four months beginning October 6.)

Radke, Dean's Professor of the Humanities at Syracuse University, had known about the panel, which depicts the beheading of John the Baptist, since an undergraduate sojourn in Florence in 1972, but it took an encounter with the recently cleaned work at an exhibition at that city's Palazzo Medici in December 2007 to provoke the "aha!" moment.

What also swayed Radke was a drawing securely attributed to Leonardo in the British Museum, the silverpoint Head of a Warrior from the mid-1470s, roughly the same date as the altar panel (1478). "It was just so spectacularly competent in terms of the medium, and every single detail was more alive and more filled with naturalistic observation than I had ever imagined from the reproduction," he says. A simple comparison of the jowls in Leonardo's drawing with those in Verrocchio's figures reveals an attention to middle-aged skin that is foreign to the teacher.

The illegitimate son of a notary, Leonardo was born in 1452 in the tiny town of Vinci, some 40 miles west of Florence. "We really don't know what his youth was like, other than he was out in the countryside," Radke says. "He must have spent a lot of time observing the world around him." According to the 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo was said to have shown an early artistic talent and, as a youth, painted a shield depicting a smoke-breathing creature made up of various animal parts put together "in so strange a fashion that it appeared altogether a monstrous and horrible thing." Radke observes that the boy probably did not get as much formal education in rural Vinci as he would have gotten in cosmopolitan Florence. Instead, he says, "Leonardo seems to have been freer to look at the world with fresh eyes. Nature was his primary teacher."

Andrea del Verrocchio was a leading sculptor, painter and goldsmith of his day. The head of a busy workshop in Florence, he is known for his bronze David . Leonardo entered Verrocchio's workshop in his teens, placed there, Radke speculates, because his father may have had connections with the Medici, the city's greatest art patrons. The young man served a long apprenticeship, at least a decade, and by the early 1480s was presenting himself to the Duke of Milan as a master of painting and sculpture as well as a formidable military engineer.

Documentary evidence suggests that Leonardo worked on many sculptural projects, even completing a 24-foot-tall clay model for a bronze horse, but none has survived. (Neither Radke nor Kemp has seen the terra-cotta bust in the palazzo in person, but both doubt the attribution. It lacks "the attention to naturalistic details I associate with Leonardo," says Radke.) The Baptistery figures, if accepted as Leonardo's, would be the only extant sculptures made in the artist's lifetime (a sculpture of a horse, thought to have been cast from a lost model after his death, is in the exhibition). Making an attribution stick when there's little with which to compare a work and when there is no paper trail—a bill of sale, preparatory sketches, a reference in a letter—is not easy.

Renaissance studies are littered with bad judgments and outright scandal. Attributions by the scholar Bernard Berenson, who died in 1959, have been overturned (and there have been al­legations that Berenson colluded with art dealers for his own profit). In 1987, Frederick Hartt, an authority on Renaissance sculpture at the University of Virginia, pronounced as genuine a small plaster study for Michelangelo's David in which, it turned out, he had a financial interest. Few scholars have seen the statue, which is in a bank vault until litigation is resolved, and the attribution remains in limbo. In 1995, New York University art historian Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt announced she had discovered a marble statue by the youthful Michelangelo, hidden in plain sight at the French Embassy's cultural offices in New York City. Several experts quickly repudiated the claim and current opinion remains divided. ( Young Archer , as the statue is known, will go on exhibition in November as an object lesson in the challenge of attribution, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.)

Aware of such controversies, Radke has proceeded with careful deliberation. In October 2008, he presented his thesis about the silver figures to colleagues at the Provo/Athens Renaissance Sculpture Conference, a quadrennial meeting of experts. Some were convinced, some not. "My main hesitation is to attach big names to works of art about which we know very little in terms of how the workshops in which they were produced functioned," says Sally Cornelison, associate professor of Italian Renaissance art at the University of Kansas. "I'm not going to say that it's not Leonardo, but I think we need to be cautious. We don't know that much about people who worked as goldsmiths and silversmiths during the Renaissance. It could just as easily be by an extremely capable but unknown artisan."

Martin Kemp, who did not attend the conference, is inclined to accept Radke's attribution on the basis of photographic evidence and the way the two "Leonardo" figures reflect light. Leonardo's handling of light was always more "painterly" and sensitive to the nuances of surface, he says, while Verrocchio tended toward the blunt and the sculptural. "What is absolutely right is that there are different hands and eyes at work in that panel," Kemp adds, but he speculates they might be Verrocchio's in the "Leonardo" figures and a lesser assistant elsewhere. Or was there another apprentice as talented as the young Leonardo?

As Radke himself notes, no contemporary attributions to a Leonardo sculpture have won unqualified acceptance. "I believe that until we discover some new written documents or other evidence, neither will the two figures in the silver altar," he says. "But what can one expect in a situation where no documented work has survived? That said, I do believe that there is more visual evidence for my attribution than any previously proposed."

Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews and the author of the Schirmer Encyclopedia of Art . She is based in New York.

A 160-Year-Old Photographic Mystery

“There, do you see it?” she asks, holding up a small, silvery rectangle in the half-lit room.

For a moment, I do: a splash of blue on a bird’s wings. Then it disappears.

The photograph, captured some 160 years ago, reveals the outline of an owl and three smaller birds.

Lifting another plate from a storage box labeled “Hill, Levi,” Michelle Delaney sighs as she examines it.

“Oh, that makes me sad. You used to be able to make out the outline of the village in the center here, but it’s faded even more now,” she says. I see only a blur of brown, gray and white; what a ghost might look like caught on camera.

In a sense, that’s what Delaney, 44, curator of the National Museum of American History’s photographic history collection, has been chasing the past three years: the ghost of the Rev. Levi L. Hill. In the years since his death in 1865, a few historians praised Hill as the unacknowledged inventor of color photography. (A Scotsman, James Clerk Maxwell, is generally credited with producing the first successful color photograph, in 1861.) Most, however, concluded that Hill was a hoodwinker.

Hill was a Baptist minister in West Kill, a tiny town in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains, when he began experimenting with daguerreo­types, an early form of photography. In February 1851, Hill made an astonishing claim: “I now have forty-five specimens, all of which present the several colors, true to a tint, and with a degree of brilliancy never seen in the richest Daguerreotype,” he boasted in a letter to the Daguerreian Journal , the first commercially produced photography magazine. He vowed to continue experimenting until he “perfected the discovery” and assured fellow photographers that, after patenting the process, he would share it with all of them for a “reasonable” price.

The journal’s editor, S. D. Humphery, lavished Hill with praise, christening his invention a “Hillotype.” But the fervor soon soured. Hill had promised a public demonstration of his works and process, but he kept pushing the date back.

Hill had tried—and failed—to patent his method. An 1853 government document stated that “existing patent laws would not afford to the inventor the security required” for his chemical process. Hill turned his back on photography altogether in 1855 after his wife and research partner, Emmeline, died at age 38.

He did finally publish his ideas in an 1856 volume titled A Treatise on Heliochromy , but by then, says Delaney, most of his peers “had thoroughly dismissed Hill’s work as fakery.”

By the time he died nine years later, obituaries referred to his Hillotypes as a failed experiment.

“Hill had a lot of supporters and a lot of naysayers,” says Delaney. Hoping to resolve the question of what Hill actually accomplished, she teamed up with independent conservator Corinne Dune and experts from the Getty Conservation Institute and George Eastman House. They analyzed the Smithsonian’s collection of 62 Hillotypes, using the latest methods of spectroscopy to identify materials and pigments without damaging the works. What they found largely vindicated the inventive clergyman.

“There’s limited color, but a wide enough range to see that he was successful,” Delaney says. But the project’s researchers also discovered that some of Hill’s works had been hand-colored or enhanced.

Delaney, who is still researching Hill, plans to include a chapter about him in a book she is writing about early American photography. “I think his legacy is that he really inspired people, in both America and Europe, to go forth and work with color processes,” she says.

She has made two visits to West Kill to consult local historians and archives, and hopes to track down more of Hill’s work, since his logbooks show he was prolific. She is particularly curious about the contemporary European art prints Hill often used as photo subjects.

“West Kill is still basically a one-block town, so I’m thinking, where did he get all those European prints?” And, she wonders, “How would someone not trained in chemistry learn to do this stuff?”

At the very least, he was a colorful character.

Sculpting Evolution

Rick Potts peers expectantly into the face of Homo heidelbergensis —“Mr. Heidi,” the anthropologist calls the bronze statue of our 700,000-year-old ancestor. “There’s the brow ridge!” Potts exclaims, as a worker at Baltimore’s New Arts Foundry chips away at the ceramic cast covering the sculpture’s features. “And the nose!”—which was large and raised, allowing H. heidelbergensis to warm the air it inhaled, an adaptation for cold environments. One by one, tufts of beard are chiseled free, and the sculpture’s eyes, now wiped clean of dust, project a keen metallic gaze. H. heidelbergensis isn’t smiling, exactly (those facial muscles had yet to evolve), but his expression is tentative—almost kindly. “Hopeful,” Potts calls it.

Once installed alongside four other sculptures of early humans at the National Museum of Natural History’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins—which opens March 17 to celebrate the museum’s 100th anniversary—the finished H. heidelbergensis will crouch over a fire, preparing a piece of roast like any modern barbecue maestro (except that Mr. Heidi is completely naked).

To help us imagine our distant ancestors, Potts, the director of the museum’s Human Origins Program, and sculptor John Gurche condensed a two-million-year period of human evolution into a series of five bronzes. But they rejected the clichéd visual timeline of slouchy ape gradually transforming into a Homo sapiens with ramrod posture. Rather, the museum’s sculpture series tells a less linear story, Potts says, that challenges “the inevitability of us.”

Upon entering the exhibit hall, you’ll first see a tableau that includes lanky Homo erectus , who emerged 1.8 million years ago. She will be gripping a stone tool and lumbering along with a dead antelope on her back. Gurche sculpted a female, Potts explains, because the most complete skull for Gurche to study was female. Also, “we wanted to contest the idea of males bringing home the bacon.”

H. erectus will be eyeing a statue of her contemporary, Paranthropus boisei , an insatiable vegetarian whom Gurche calls a “chewing machine” and who lived between 2.3 million and 1.2 million years ago. P. boisei , who has massive jaw muscles and teeth, tugs at an unappetizing-looking root. His hands are human, but his gaze is slightly bovine, and he seems oblivious to everything except his tubers. “Paranthropus” means “next to man”; he is not a direct ancestor of contemporary humans, and after a million years, his species died out.

Next comes H. heidelbergensis (who likely harnessed fire), followed by a Neanderthal ( Homo neanderthalensis ) mother and child, who would have lived some 60,000 years ago. As the toddler peers over her shoulder, the mother is preparing hides for her family to wear. (Clothing at last!) Neanderthals were socially developed enough to bury their dead.

Another statue portrays a less exalted relation: tiny Homo floresiensis , who had a wee brain and huge feet and ate rats and lizards. “Flo,” as Gurche sometimes calls her, is shown recoiling in terror from something—perhaps a cloud of volcanic ash that blanketed the Indonesian island where her kind lived a mere 18,000 years ago. Doomed H. floresiensis “suggests we’re more fragile than we thought,” Potts says.

The sculptures emphasize that our predecessor species did not simply succeed one another, each hominid more evolved than the last. Rather, several overlapped in time— P. boisei with H. erectus , and early H. floresiensis with the late Neanderthals—adopting different survival strategies as they competed for resources. By featuring oddball cousins such as P. boisei and H. floresiensis —as opposed to possible direct ancestors like Australopithecus africanus —the exhibit demonstrates that modern humans, with our jumbo brains, are just another iteration of this family tree, and not evolution’s inevitable grand finale.

Seeing the exquisite artwork, though, it is hard not to feel the slightest bit smug about our species’ accomplishments. As we toured the Baltimore foundry, we watched the mold of Mr. Heidi’s torso being fired in the kiln.

“There’s a touch of pyromania about this business,” remarks foundry owner Gary Siegel as we admire the licking flames.

“It all started with heidelbergensis ,” Potts responds.

Previous article First Lady’s Inaugural Gown Ar...
Next article Renoir’s Controversial Second...

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here