Rumors abound that new Leonardo da Vinci painting has been found in Boston

By Sarah Kaufman
Thursday, December 31, 2009

Is the world about to gain another Leonardo da Vinci painting?

The multitasking Renaissance genius who produced the most famous portrait in the world -- Mona somebody -- left us only 10 to 20 other paintings. Yet if current whispers bear out about a picture in Boston, that number may increase by one more. Art experts say it's the equivalent of stumbling upon a surprise Shakespeare play or a lost Homeric epic.

At this point, we have only a tantalizing mystery -- perhaps the unspooling of a new Da Vinci code -- dangling on the slender thread of secrets and a handful of clues that emerged this week:

-- The Washington Post receives a tip from a source who wishes to remain anonymous that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has in its possession a painting believed to be by the Italian master, and is in the process of authenticating it. Were it deemed a true Leonardo, such a painting would be only the second one in all the Americas. (The first hangs here, in the National Gallery of Art.)

-- We put a call in to Frederick Ilchman, the Boston museum's Renaissance curator. Does he have such a painting? "Can't tell you anything about it, sorry," he says, before hanging up. (Do we detect a yes in that click?)

-- We try Katie Getchell, the museum's curatorial deputy director, who says through a spokeswoman: "We don't comment on works that the MFA may be studying or considering for acquisition." Asked if this meant that the MFA is, in fact, studying a possible da Vinci painting for purchase, spokeswoman Dawn Griffin says she can say nothing more.

-- We ask Renaissance painting expert Miguel Falomir Faus if he knows anything about the painting. He tells us in an e-mail that he had lunch Tuesday with New York University art history professor Alex Nagel in New York, "and he talked [to] me about the new da Vinci." Faus adds, however, "I have not seen the work (I don't even know its subject)."

-- Nagel, for his part, further stirs the pot with his own e-mail to us: "How can I comment on a painting I haven't seen? Do you have a photo?"

No, we don't have a photo. We have an imagination, though, and it's taken off for some beautifully lit marbled hall, where we stand before a swirl of pigment -- a plump infant? another half-smile under almond eyes? -- from the enchanted left hand of da Vinci himself. The man who changed the course of Western painting with his exquisite skill, warmth of feeling and boundary-pushing. We didn't need Dan Brown's breathless bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" to cast this artist in tantalizing shadows. They were already there.

"If you want to invoke some idea of mystery, of genius, of secrets, then Leonardo's your man," says Nagel, who decides to comment after all. (That is, he has plenty to say about da Vinci and about the perils of authentication, but he wants it again made clear: He has not seen the painting. If there is one!)

Could any putative discovery intrigue us as much? Why does da Vinci fascinate us so, 500 years after his death? For one thing, his outsize talents raced in all directions. A tinkerer and a polymath, he was a sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, writer and musician in addition to being a painter, and you could slap a few more titles in there as well.

He went highbrow and low: He crafted parade floats and cathedral domes, designed helicopters far ahead of their time. He gave the world its best-known religious painting -- "The Last Supper" -- and also worked to stock Italy's war chest, designing defense systems. For the king of France, he whipped up what sounds like a darling mechanical lion that sprouted lilies. Legend has it that da Vinci died in the king's arms -- a disputed story that only endears him to us all the more, like the tales of how he bought up captive birds in order to set them free, and the fog surrounding his sexuality. (Those shades of eroticism and androgyny in his portraits!)

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