Leonardo Salvator Mundi? A restoration masterpiece

Gianluca Poldi  -  November 25, 2017

The most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction was in a bad shape. Restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini retouched and saved the Savior. Now her work has become priceless.

The work of a restorer has never been rated as much as in the case of Leonardo Salvator Mundi, recently sold at Christie’s. Lets assume it makes sense to calculate the price of a work of art per square meter. Paying 450.3 millions dollar – auction house fees included – for a painted wooden board measuring 65.5 x 45.1 cm means that every squared centimeter of that painting costs you $154.000. The price of course embeds the “not Leonardo” parts, hence the parts retouched by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who masterly restored the piece.

We are not questioning the painting’s authenticity: stylistically and technically speaking this Salvator Mundi is clearly by the hand of Leonardo. Many scholars pointed it out. Luke Syson, who curated the smashing exhibition dedicated to Leonardo at the London National Gallery in 2011, personally described the work in the exhibition’s catalog. Pietro Marani, a distinguished expert on Leonardo, confirms that The Salvator Mundi purchased last week by a still unknown collector, is an autograph painting by Leonardo da Vinci, even if he points out the work is not in a perfect state of preservation. Precisely Syson wrote that the “re-emergence of this picture, cleaned and restored to reveal an autograph work by Leonardo, […] comes as an extraordinary surprise”. But in the above mentioned catalog he also wrote that the “reasons for such abundant over-paint are also clear: though both hands are well preserved, elsewhere the picture has suffered” and “it has also been aggressively over-cleaned, with some abrasion of the whole picture surface and especially in the face and hair of Christ”.

As proved by the image published in the ‘vanity catalog’ dedicated by Christie’s to the fabulous lot (apparently they were expecting to sell it in the area of 100 millions), the recent cleaning revealed a long vertical crack and other evident losses of painted surface. They probably were due to the movement of the wood occurred during the centuries. The painting’ state of conservation is clarified by the technical images carried out by Art Analysis & Research, who produced Infra-Red Reflectography and X-Rays Radiography.

As many other works by the master, Leonardo Salvator Mundi was painted on a walnut support; and not on a poplar one, generally employed by Italian artists at that time. IRR shows the lack of painting in many areas and also some small changes. There’s a little shift in the right hand thumb and some variations in the border of the cross-band on the chest and on the central decoration. Technically, we may affirm that the attribution to Leonardo is coherent with the results of the scientific analysis; but this coherency doesn’t rely on the use of high quality natural ultramarine (lapis lazuli), as someone stated; it is known that many other masters at that time were using the same kind of pigment. Rather, the painting is to be attributed to Leonardo on account of: a) under-drawing; b) the peculiar layering of pigments; c) the type and quality of the brushstrokes, which are perfectly fused together in the original and better preserved areas.

Having said so, would it be possible to account how much of lost painted surface was retouched during the restoration? According to the images available, we may estimate that 10% of the original painted surface of Christ’s face, neck, hair, dress and black background is by the hand of the restorer. Leonardo and the previous owner of the painting thank Dianne Dwyer Modestini. She had an impressive ability in recreating Leonardo’s ‘sfumato’ where needed, cleverly ‘interpreting’ what survived of the original image. The face of Leonardo Salvator Salvator was surely more simple to integrate than the Christ’s head of the Last Supper in Milan, whose interpretation of the shadows and of the whole head is still not convincing. But now that question is, what would be the price of the retouched parts of this extraordinary painting? Or, to put it in another way, how much would you pay for a 10% of a Leonardo by a distinguished restorer such as Dianne Dwyer Modestini?