The Last Leonardo:
The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting
By Ben Lewis
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
This is the most Christ-centered book I have read in a long time, just not in the way that phrase generally implies! Christ is at the center in the sense that this book is about a painting of Jesus Christ and carries the title Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Savior of the World”).
The Last Leonardo is a history of that painting, from its point of origin in the art studio of the great Leonardo de Vinci to the grand new art gallery in Abu Dhabi—or so it was thought, but it never showed up in the gallery and some don’t think it ever rested in the Milan studio of the famous sixteenth-century painter at all.
And that is what this book is about: the mystery and money that surrounds this painting of Jesus, presented by the artist as the “Savior of the World”.
The author of the book, Ben Lewis (with whom I corresponded while writing this review) lives in London and is, after the fashion of Leonardo himself, a multi-faceted artist: film maker, book writer, art critic, and social commentator. He is also, as this book demonstrates, a fast worker—he imagined it, researched it, and wrote it in a mere nine months!
And to write this book he had to have a wide-ranging knowledge of history, literature, art, economics, religion, and politics all stitched together by a fertile imagination.
The short version is this. The Salvator Mundi was commissioned in 1506 by King Louis XII of France and painted in the studio of Leonardo in Milan. At least some of the image bears the mark of the great painter himself, but how much is in great dispute.
The painting came into the possession of King Edward VII of England and stayed there until it disappeared from sight, one of the many consequences of the rise and fall of kings, and nations, and fortunes. From 1763 until 1958 nobody today knows where it was; it does not appear on any of the many inventories of art collections anywhere in Europe.
When it re-appeared in a Sotheby’s auction it was identified as the work of another painter and thus sold for a mere $125. It ended up in the common collection of Warren Kuntz where for decades it hung on the wall of a family estate in New Orleans: unnoticed, under-appreciated, and surely seriously under-insured!!
The family finally put it up for auction at a local dealer, and when that dealer printed a black and white image of it in the sale catalogue, a small-time art broker and critic named Robert Simon took interest. He convinced a friend to share the cost and together they bought it for $1,175 in May of 2005 (although they ended up paying approximately $10,000 to the middleman who facilitated the purchase).
Simon and his investing partner (Alex Parish, a self-described born-again Christian!) embarked on an eight year odyssey of research, restoration, and public relations, the end of which was to convince some people it was an original Leonardo; which, in turn, motivated a Russian oligarch to pay $80 million dollars to own it.
But after it was exhibited in London as original and authentic (and seen by an astounding 323,897 people!) the crown prince of Saudi Arabia paid a handsome $400 million (plus the $50 million auction fee). He took possession, and perhaps took it to Switzerland; but it never has appeared in public or in the fancy new museum in the United Arab Emirates as was promised. In fact, its current whereabouts in unknown to the public (and perhaps also to the professionals).
Which means I need to describe the famous painting in case you see it in some secondhand shop.
It is a rendering of Jesus, with long curly hair flowing down to both shoulders, dressed in a fancy blue tunic. The face shares some of the qualities of the Mona Lisa: soft, without expression, and also without sharp features; we, of course, do not know if it shares any resemblance to the real Jesus.
His right hand is raised, with the first two fingers casually pointing up as if he were giving a half-hearted benediction; the left hand is at the waist holding a clear orb, perhaps eight inches in diameter. That globe is the world, the critics tell us.
The arrangement and motif were not uncommon in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and there are a few originals by other artists and many copies floating around the art world today.
What I have omitted from this brief summary of the book is the over-riding mystic that has surrounded this work of art: the intrigue, and duplicity, and ego, and chaos—to say nothing of the many efforts to address its badly damaged condition.
Not since I read The Half Has Never Been Told have I learned so much about arenas of life and work and leisure that I never knew. What a story! What a book! What an achievement in nine months!
But mostly, what a wonder of the world’s greatest and most multi-talented artist: the illegitimate and self-educated man from the small town of Vinci, just west of Florence, who was born in 1452 and died in 1519.
An even greater wonder: how the simplicity and poverty of the subject—one Jesus of Nazareth—became the center piece of this half-millennium drama of imagination, intrigue, investigation, incredible investment, and unparalleled attention!!