By Sarah Kaufman
Thursday, December 31, 2009; C01
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!)
His paintings brought him the most renown, few as they are. Among them: the instantly recognizable "Mona Lisa," two "Virgin of the Rocks," a "St. Jerome in the Wilderness," an "Adoration of the Magi" -- works without precedent for their innovative varnishing and binding techniques, their perfect replication of muscle, bone and human expression, their delicate tones.
His meticulousness is one reason for the low production -- but so was his drive to innovate. "He was not interested in the practical matters of completing a job," says Nagel. "He was interested in doing things that had never been done before."
It was a huge deal when the National Gallery landed its da Vinci oil, titled "Ginevra de' Benci." It was purchased in 1967 for $5 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a work of art. When J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery's director, got his hands on it, his counterpart and archrival at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, "was beside himself," The Post's Matt Schudel reported after Hoving's death earlier this month.
"I still wake up occasionally at 3 in the morning and say, 'We should have gotten that!' " Hoving said. "When I'm an old man, I'll be muttering, 'Leonardo,' and people in the nursing home will say, 'How sad, he thinks he's Leonardo.' "
The fact is, where da Vinci is concerned, hype and art have become inextricably entwined. "It would change the fortunes of the MFA if they had a real Leonardo," says Nagel, the art history professor. " . . . If you can make this definitely a work by Leonardo, a lot of money is going to be changing hands. When that's the dominant concern, there's great pressure to want something to be the real thing."
A da Vinci discovery made news in October, when a drawing thought to be that of an unknown 19th-century German artist was attributed to the Italian master, and valued at more than $150 million. But doubts remain among some experts about its authenticity, which rested in part on a fingerprint.
Stamping any new finding as definitively da Vinci's -- he was, after all, one of the world's most copied artists -- would be exceedingly difficult, says John Brewer, author of "The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money."
"We all have this fantasy that we've gotten better and better at authenticating," he says. But the new technologies -- forensics, infrared imaging and so forth -- "will only tell you whether it's not by someone. Scientific technology is good at spotting bad fakes. But to be able to say yes as opposed to saying no, that depends on the cultured eye of the expert. And that's intuitive."
For the man whose incomprehensible gifts unleashed frauds, endless speculation and churning thrillers into the modern era, mystery seems fated to be part of his story.