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Leonardo Canards: Conservator Dianne Modestini Debunks Doubts Over the Elusive “Salvator Mundi”

Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who painstakingly restored Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Salvator Mundi,” is exasperated by the questions that have been raised about the condition and attribution of the rediscovered painting that was to have been unveiled on Sept. 18 at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

It has not yet resurfaced since it was sold at Christie’s on Nov. 15:

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi,” c. 1500

Joining the many reporters who have tried to learn about the painting’s current status, I recently made my own series of inquiries—to Dianne and several others who I thought might know something. These questions have become more timely with the imminent first anniversary of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s public opening, Nov. 11: Some have speculated that the unveiling was delayed to coincide with the anniversary celebration.

A wave of rumors swelled after Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) tweeted on Sept. 3 that the planned public display of the $450.3-million painting had been postponed. “More details will be announced soon,” the tweet promised. “Soon” hasn’t yet happened. Some critics have suggested that the delay might be the result of misgivings over the painting’s condition or even doubts about whether it is by Leonardo at all.

Below are Modestini’s comments to me about the status of the painting and the criticism by its detractors:

Dianne Dwyer Modestini

It’s supposed to have been in Switzerland, but I’m not quite convinced, because a conservator who was asked to make a condition report more a month ago still hadn’t seen it as of last Monday [Oct. 22]. I’m rather worried because although it was framed in a microclimate, it is not a long-term solution. I’m pretty sure it left Christie’s in mid-May. Then it disappeared. It never went to Abu Dhabi.

The Abu Dhabi announcement [that it had postponed display of the painting] had nothing to do with the nonsense about its being 85% by Dianne Modestini and the rest by [Leonardo’s studio assistant Bernardino] Luini. [The Luini theory, advanced by Leonardo scholar Matthew Landrus, was reported by Dalya Alberge in the Guardian and picked up by Smithsonian Magazine, among others.]

However, the panel is badly damaged and exceptionally reactive to changes in RH [relative humidity]. It needs to be at not less than 45% RH, even though it has some protection because it’s in a microclimate created by sealing it up in an envelope of Marvelseal—s standard technique.

Image from Christie’s online catalogue (70), showing “Salvator Mundi’s” losses before restoration

I have refrained from commenting on some of the recent articles about the restoration. However, in light of the fact that no one can now see the actual painting, various digital images are standing in for the original, all of which can be manipulated any way one wants and are a sort of falsification of the original.

It is very difficult to photograph any painting accurately, this one especially, because of the many thin layers, subtlety of skin tones, delicacy of transitions etc. Most paintings have three dimensions, not two. That affects our perception of them. I hardly recognize the image that now passes for the “Salvator Mundi.”

The photo lamps or strobes (in the case of the Christie’s images) produce a simulacrum of the actual painting, more vivid, sharper, snazzier, if you will, than the actual battered image that I restored as carefully as I could, trying not to invent anything. These flashy images cannot include the nuances and problems created by the three dimensionality of the corrugated surface and are being compared with an only slightly more accurate scan of a good 8×10 transparency of the cleaned state, which was more honest.

Because its monumental price was reportedly to be paid in installments, I wondered whether the painting had, in fact, changed hands. When I asked Christie’s recently whether “Salvator Mundi” had been “transferred to the buyer (or to whomever the buyer designated should receive it),” Erin McAndrew, head of corporate communications, replied: “The property was transferred.”

When I asked for an update from Luke Syson, who had backed the attribution to Leonardo by including “Salvator Mundi” in his 2011-12 Leonardo show at London’s National Gallery, he replied:

I’m terribly sorry but I don’t have any answers for you on these questions. Like everyone else, I’m waiting to see what happens next.

The press office of the Louvre Abu Dhabi dispatched this brief message in response to my queries:

Thank you for reaching out to us. Please note that the Department of Culture and Tourism—Abu Dhabi (DCT), the owner of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” has postponed the unveiling of the painting.

DCT are handling all enquiries regarding the “Salvator Mundi.” Please kindly contact Amena Abdulla Khoori and Faisal Al Dhahri at DCT for any questions.

I sent an email to both of them (at addresses specified by the Louvre Abu Dhabi) and I also wrote to another DCT official, to whom I was referred in Amena Abdulla Khoori’s “away” message.

No replies.

I contacted the press office of the Louvre in Paris, asking why the unveiling at the Louvre Abu Dhabi had been delayed; whether the delay was related to uncertainties about attribution or condition; whether (and when) it would be displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi; whether “Salvator Mundi” would be included in the Louvre’s upcoming “Leonardo” show in Paris, Oct. 24, 2019 to Feb. 24, 2020.

I thought the venerable French museum would at least be able to answer my question regarding its own exhibition plans, but Sophie Grange of the Louvre’s press office said only this:

It is too early, one year ahead, to communicate on the list of the loans for the Louvre exhibition. Concerning Louvre Abu Dhabi, they communicate themselves about their own collection.

Grange advised me to get in touch with Faisal Al Dhahri at Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism—one of the three officials whom I’d already attempted to contact several times, to no avail.

I think this is called: “Getting the Run-Around.”

For now, I’ll give the last word to Modestini:

I have no idea about the future of the painting. No one does. Not the French, not [Leonardo expert] Martin Kemp. I assume the people from Abu Dhabi know something, but they are not talking to anyone, not even the French.

The consensus of experts contacted by Syson in advance of his National Gallery exhibition was that “Salvator Mundi” is indeed by Leonardo. Assuming they’re right (or even if some experts disagree), the information blackout regarding a painting promised for public display is not only disturbing, but also a breach of faith with (or by) the Louvre, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, art scholars and the museum-going public.

There’s something going on here, but we don’t know what it is. It’s high time for someone to answer our questions and dispel our concerns about the seemingly erratic custodianship of “Salvator Mundi.”

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