The discovery of a life that we could have only dared to imagine!
The path to discovering a masterpiece that was believed to have disappeared often resembled a police investigation. The expert, a specialist of old masters and fine arts, was often a detective of history who had to collect clues and facts, and connect them all to form a theory which would eventually lead him to indisputable proof. It was through the Hercule Poirot-esque work, and through the case’s mystery, evoking both the “Da Vinci Code” by Agatha Christie and “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tratt, that the story about the (re)discovery of a missing drawing by Leonardo da Vinci could be told.
Patrick de Bayser is an expert on old drawings who is quite well-known in the world of art, specifically by auctioneers, art merchants, and collectors. He’s familiar with the ins and outs of Drouot and its mysteries, and has written on this subject in Le piéton de Drouot, an alphabetical guide to the mystical auction room for amateurs and novices. His second piece, le Nu, is a novel rather than non-fiction in which he engages his storyteller’s wit in a tale about an ill-fated artist halfway between Porbus, the hero in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, and Amedeo Modigliani with his “Novo Pilota.”
A few months earlier, Patrick de Bayser was called upon by Thadée Prate, the director of the department of paintings and ancient drawings at Etude Tajan, who had a folder of drawings with him. A sale to finalize, a catalogue to complete, up until that point in Bayser’s routine there had been nothing extraordinary, it was business as usual. However, inside this folder were 14 Italian drawings each with prestigious attributes. One of these drawings stood out to Bayser, for it had Michelangelo’s annotation—and yet it was not this magnificent signature that drew him in…
He first noticed that the drawing was two-sided and placed on a blue mounting sheet. He then recognized the pencil’s unique traces, the crosshatching from right to left and from bottom to top, the retouching, the outlines of a landscape and above all, on the back, mirrored writing and patterns. His instinct told him: “This isn’t Michelangelo, it’s Leonardo!” He knew immediately that a masterpiece was before him, his heart raced: was his dream coming true?
The dream began in 2003 when Bayser visited an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that was organized by Carmen C. Bambach, « Leonardo da Vinci Master Draftsman », and even when he was at the Louvre where there had been a complementary exhibit on the master’s drawings. He drew from these two events in order to study Leonardo’s technique and returned several times to the two museums saying “and if one day…”.
Patrick de Bayser began finding clues, detecting traces, and hypothesizing like Sherlock Holmes and his deductive spirit—it’s a script reversed in the mirror—the crosshatching, the compositions’ direction…We truly were in the middle of a “Da Vinci code!”
First Clue: The style and the art of the scenery. The subject is Saint Sebastian, a martyr who accepted his fate. His fear of death is underlined by the retouching done in pen, thicker and more somber, enhancing the artist’s work. What’s more, Michelangelo (1475-1564) dates from a later generation by roughly 20 years, and Leonardo’s technique belongs to the 15th century whereas Michelangelo belongs to the 16th. The details of a rocky landscape are typical of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings: the connection can immediately be made between this drawing and The Virgin of the Rocks (1483), or The Virgin and child with St. Anne (1508). The scenes are set against a landscape background composed of continuous rocky summits behind the characters. The scenery is mountainous and arid, giving the religious scene a poetic and unreal aspect. This particular treatment of the landscape, fitting to Leonardo da Vinci, is just like a signature.
All of Leonardo’s drawings had been preserved by Francesco Melzi, his student who put together the Treaty of Anatomy as well as the only published work, The Treaty of Painting.
Second Clue: the drawing—carefully inscribed on a rectangular paper—is quite fine, and when turning it over we find two scientific diagrams referring to light and angles. They concern the distribution of light, a study which we find to be much more developed upon in the “C” manuscript. This manuscript is kept at the French Institute Library among Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks (or Codex—ordered from A to M from the end of the 18th century). The 12 notebooks are of varying formats and content dating from around 1487 to 1508, and are more scientific than they are artistic. The smaller sized ones could have fit in the artist’s pocket—they contain notes, sketches, and drafts of treatises on various subjects that have yet to lose their intrigue. Composed in 1490/91, the “C” manuscript is dedicated to shadows and light, that is to the variations of shapes depending on their illumination as well as to diverse optical observations imposed on the painting.
Third Clue: The writing and the language—Leonardo da Vinci’s left-handed writing is reversed and reads from right to left. The drawing is that of a left-handed person, also proven by the crosshatchings from right to left, and is of a different size than the drawings of other artists. Its language is Italian mixed with the Lombard dialect, the spelling is unique with no punctuation nor emphasis.
Fourth Clue: the folds in the drawing. For Patrick de Bayser, the folds in the drawing tell us about life and the purpose of this drawing. It had to have been turned over very often, for it was likely a model for Leondardo da Vinci’s followers and successors. The drawing was certainly considered to be the product of da Vinci’s own hand, giving it the status of a model or of a canonical drawing. We know that the drawing was done in Milan, well within range of Renaissance painters who were da Vinci’s contemporaries and who were also inspired by Saint Sebastian, such as Cesare da Sesto (1447-1523), Marco Palmezzano (1460-1539), or Giovanni Antonio Biazzi, called Il Sodoma (1477-1549). He had often been copied particularly by Pompeo Leoni (1533-1608). This Italian sculptor had been the one who held on to Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and logs among which were important collections. For Leoni, an artist of the Second Renaissance who served Philippe II of Spain, da Vinci was an eternal source of inspiration notably for his great mausoleums at the Escorial Palace belonging to Charles-Quint and Philippe II, but also for his banner of Saint Sebastian.
Leoni also plays an important role in our story, for the drawings and notebooks in which Saint Sebastian frequently appears are today preserved at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and constitute the Codex Atlanticus, so named because of its large size (64.5 × 43.5 cm) which reflects that of an atlas. The Codex Atlanticus covers a large period of Leonardo da Vinci’s life, from 1478 (taken from leaflets where he cites his uncle, Francesco d’Antionio) to 1518 (from his plans for the construction of the Royal Palace at Romorantin).
But, the story’s plot unfortunately encountered a big, black hole: all trace of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings were lost in the maze of successions, dispersions, thefts, and pillages that speckled Europe’s history. Did you know that the French Institute preserved Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks following Bonaparte’s campaign in Italy (1796)? When Bonaparte arrived in Milan as the victor at the head of the budding French Republic, he imposed a war tribute in Lombardy as well as commanded the confiscation of major scientific and artistic works. His delegates, and most notably the mathematician Gaspard Monge, selected various crates at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana that ultimately made it to France, and more specifically to the French National Library in Paris. Only twelve notebooks were reinstated at the Institute where competent scholars were waiting to study them over the following years.
In 1815, during the occupation of Paris by the allies who had that time been victorious over Napoleon, the restitution of the artistic goods was decided upon, though the focus remained on visiting the great storerooms. The Institute’s smaller manuscripts, neither located nor reclaimed, were simply forgotten. The drawings were then rediscovered in the 19th century. At the time, drawing had been an often neglected artistic form—this might be explained by the evident preference for painting, sculpting, or even architecture. Even Louis XIV, as a visionary, decided to create the office of drawings, the ancestor of the graphic arts department at the Louvre.
The ironic situation of the drawing in terms of other artistic forms of expression addresses one of the traits of this type of work: the techniques’ fragility and the papers’ sensitivity to light which do not allow for a permanent exhibit. The drawings’ preservation was organized in the way that a library would have done. The works that remain there are stored in the reserves and are only taken out for consultation in the reading room or for exhibits lasting at most three months, presented in very specific conditions (lighting of a maximum of 50 lux), and followed by periods of rest. At any rate, these are the scientific requirements for conserving these drawings to which public collections must adhere.
Leonardo’s importance has never been put into question, thanks to the 17th century publication of his Treatise on Painting. Though, the frantic search for Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings didn’t begin until 19th century, as this period was when print and photographic reproductions, in addition to drawings, became more popular. All the great English, Italian, and French libraries, were each very carefully and methodically searched, including each private collection and every auction sale.
Having the knowledge of these places and clues in his possession, Patrick de Bayser established a strategy that led up to a big, explosive reveal, like in a real police investigation. In order for this to work, it was necessary not to draw attention to the investigation before having confirmation of the drawing’s identification. Discretely, Bayser toured the French Institute’s library and found drawings of the same style in the infamous Codex C. Having been considered as being the characteristic, universal genius of the Renaissance and epigone of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Leonardo da Vinci recorded a number of his ideas in his notebooks, the Codices. Patrick de Bayser wished to confirm this one drawing’s authenticity by seeking the help of the leading expert in works done by da Vinci, Carmen C. Bambach who was the director of the graphic arts department at the Metropolitan Museum.
Bambach rushed to Paris and corroborated Bayser’s intuition. In the catalogue for her exhibit “Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman” (Jan. 22nd, 2003 – Mar. 30th, 2003) at the Metropolitan Museum, Bayser had noted another Saint Sebastian slightly less worked but also displaying similarities with the one in his possession. Bayser also found a list made by the artist in the Codex Atlanticus, indicating that there had in fact been eight studies in total on the Saint, allowing our drawing to constitute the third one that had been retrieved.
The discovery of this drawing is of great importance considering that, for more than 100 years, nothing of the sort had been found.
With the wheels in motion, the Louvre was then notified and very soon after a letter dated December 28th, 2016 was sent from the Minister of Culture classifying the drawing as a national treasure. This would mean that over a span of 30 months, the Louvre has the possibility of deciding whether to acquire this work of art or find a way to finance it, with the estimated price for the master piece being around 15 million euros. If, by the end of this period, a decision has not been made, it will then be possible to organize an auction and the piece will need to obtain a visa in order to be exported.
Fact: France holds the largest number of Leonardo da Vinci’s works of art.
However, one mystery still remains. From where did this drawing originate? Strands on the borders of the pages indicate that the series was without a doubt part of the same collection. We do know that the set belonged to a Parisian doctor, a knowledgeable bibliophile who, during his lifetime, had sold everything but this one drawing folder that his son inherited.
The remaining 13 drawings in the folder will be sold at auctions shortly by Etude Tajan.
In just two years, we will celebrate in remembrance the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. This will be the Louvre’s opportunity to put on a grand exhibition, and perhaps even to show case Saint Sebastian.
Florence Briat Soulié
Translated by Brianna Reed, Vassar College ‘16
Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman Opens at Metropolitan Museum 2003
Musée du Louvre : Léonard de Vinci Dessins et manuscrits – 2003