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Art inspires some of our most enduring cultural riddles. Since art has intrinsic value that is often outsized, and since we have drawings, paintings and sculpture from more than 2,500 years of Western civilization there always can be question and debate because the time period is so vast and the objects so mystical and cherished.
Naturally the pre-eminent artists produce the most significant controversies. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) has had his share. Paintings and drawings by Leonardo or attributed to him are said to have disappeared, resurfaced, been spirited away, deteriorated, been altered, copied, stolen or faked. In fact it is my firm belief that we even have a false portrait of Leonardo himself.
This renowned drawing of an elderly fellow with intense features, which has been called Bearded Man, has been deemed time and time again to be a self-portrait of da Vinci. Up until 2013 you could have visited the entry for Leonardo at the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.org and you would have seen Bearded Man. We see it everywhere. It is iconic.
But a little sleuthing suggests that the subject is not da Vinci at all. For starters a new monograph about Leonardo claims the creator of Bearded Man to be “Leonardo(?)” – note the question mark – and terms it So-called Self Portrait. Then if you type ‘images of Leonardo da Vinci’ into Google you will come up with dozens of versions that little resemble Bearded Man, while none of those images is even attributed to Leonardo himself but are other artists’ descriptions of the master.
Bearded Man is a rugged, masculine character while the portraits on Google show a much fairer face with a taller and more delicate geometry. These renderings much resemble a profile drawing that is called Portrait of Leonardo (below) and that is attributed to Francesco Melzi (1491-1570) who was Leonardo’s assistant and understudy.
Melzi’s portrait is dated roughly 1515 when Leonardo would have been 63, four years before his death. If this indeed is the master then he would not have deteriorated in four years or less into the grizzled creature depicted in Bearded Man. In fact Bearded Man is probably a drawing by Leonardo of his own father who is said to have died at age 78 in 1504. Bearded Man certainly more resembles a 78-year-old man than a 63 year old or even a 67 year old.
Now compare the two images. To my perception they are not the same person at all. Bearded Man is a brooding face with tousled eyebrows, deep-set eyes, and thick eyelids whereas the Melzi profile is bright and open with virtually no eyebrows and shallow lids. Bearded Man has puffy cheeks and a protruding lower lip while the Melzi portrait has smooth, tight skin and a receding lip. Bearded Man has a wide, bulbous nose while the Melzi has a slender, long and pointed nose which is the most prominent characteristic that comes up repeatedly in the Google results. Try the Google search yourself and you will see Bearded Man included. And you will notice side-by-side that Bearded Man has form and proportion that contrast markedly with the rest of the pictures.
(Also notice in the Google images that Leonardo is repeatedly depicted wearing a hat. This may have resulted from the fact that he had a receding hairline, as shown in the Melzi drawing. After all, vanity is eternal.)
So what are we to make of all this? Did Leonardo simply never make a portrait of himself?
Well, nothing formal, according to my theory. But here is part of a page of quick sketches said to have been made by Leonardo. The figure at the right is said to be a self-portrait. Notice the receding lower lip like the one in Melzi. The man on the lower left, however, is said to be Leonardo’s father. Notice the protruding lower lip in both Bearded Man and in this sketch. And the deep-set eyes. So it looks like this alleged portrait of Leonardo’s father comports more with the famous Bearded Man than with Leonardo’s own image by his own hand, or by Melzi.
Want more? Here is a legendary sculpture called David (of David & Goliath fame) by Leonardo’s mentor Andrea del Verrochio. It is said that del Verrochio used a young Leonardo as his model. Look at the face – it certainly has many of the characteristics of the Melzi portrait and of Leonardo’s self-portrait sketch. Notice the receding lower lip and the shallow eyes on David. The hair is almost identical to the self-portrait sketch.
There is a good chance that Leonardo did not make any formal self-portraits. After all there is not one noted in his oeuvre except for the very questionable Bearded Man. This alone adds further spice to the thesis that Bearded Man is not a self-portrait. Because otherwise Leonardo apparently never made one… that we know of anyway.
The history of self-portraiture among European painters is mixed. While Leonardo apparently refrained, Rembrandt depicted himself obsessively while Domenico Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco, included his own image as a character, but never as himself, in 11 paintings over 30 years including four times as saints(!)
So why would Leonardo not make many or any formal portraits of himself? He certainly seemed to have wanted to describe everything else in his netherworld from sultry Italian demoiselles in smoky landscapes to machines for the production of rope.
The answer could lie in his character. Leonardo was very famous in his own era. He knew that his legacy would be historic and possibly he wanted to add a little enigma by concealing himself. Perhaps he was too busy and did not consider a self-portrait to be worth his time, or he thought it too narcissistic. Conceivably he tried and never was satisfied with the result. Maybe they were lost. Or stolen. Who knows?
I e-mailed Wikipedia in 2013 and explained my theory, and I was heartened that they changed the image displayed with their Leonardo entry from Bearded Man to the Melzi drawing. So now whenever the Wikipedia page for Leonardo is accessed – which today is surely the single most consulted global source on da Vinci – the Melzi profile will appear and many visitors will wonder, “Hey, what happened to the old guy? I thought that that was Leonardo!”
This is a good thing that will help to turn the tide on a historic misconception. Because to my mind not only does Melzi more accurately reveal Leonardo da Vinci but it changes our perception of him for the better. He appears younger and more vibrant and this reflects an effervescent life and career. Indeed much of what we think about a person is wrapped up in their image and it is my firm belief that the Melzi sketch is the genuine description of the sparkling, legendary and original Renaissance Man.
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