Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: Leonardo's Lost Princess

Leonardo's Lost Princess
From Leonardo's Lost Princess: One Man's Quest to Authenticate an Unknown Portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci, by Peter Silverman and Catherine Whitney:
Open quote 

One would have to be a fool not to be wary of a Leonardo attribution. There's bound to be controversy. The last time a serious claim was made, it took nearly a century to sort it out."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C+

In 2007, an art collector is attracted to a portrait of a young woman that he comes across in a New York art dealer's gallery. The work is attributed to an unknown nineteenth century German artist. Certain the work is of the Renaissance and worth much more than the $19,000 asking price, our collector purchases the portrait and embarks on a search to find out all about the drawing: its age, its artist, its subject. All the clues he uncovers, confirmed by art connoisseurs and scientists, point to the same artist: Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most famous artist in history.

The story is compelling, not just the detective work that leads to Leonardo, but the resistance and push back from the art world, where reputations stand to suffer if it turns out art experts failed to recognize an unknown masterpiece, even when it was in their hands.

The writing, however, is far from a masterpiece. There are far too many wasteful sentences likes this: "The story of how Peter Paul Biro came to marry the gritty world of crime analysis with the elite world of art authentication is fascinating." Instead of telling us that a story is going to be fascinating, an author should just tell the story and let the reader become fascinated.

More problematic is the fact much of this story (the detective story, not the politics of the art world) is best told through images: the portrait, other works by Leonardo and other Renaissance artists, details revealed under extreme magnification or multispectral photography, etc. For that, I recommend watching the National Geographic-Nova documentary Mystery of a Masterpiece. The visual medium of television is better suited to the detective story than the printed word is. Either way, the story is fascinating. ;-)

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