“Da Vinci – The Lost Treasure” – BBC

Every now and then, viewers write into the BBC to complain that the only thing Fiona Bruce seems to be good for is striding in and out of shot with those elegant, never-ending legs of hers. They ought of course to be castigating her employers for not making better use of her, instead of laying the blame at the woman herself.

Just what they’re missing by asking her to act as little more than window dressing on the Antiques Roadshow was revealed by the wonderful programme she produced on Leonardo for BBC1. It was made with two ends in mind. First, as an introduction to the newly discovered Salvator Mundi, which was recently revealed as one of Leonardo’s lost masterpieces. And second, as a celebration of the National Gallery’s mouth-watering exhibition of Leonardo’s principle paintings.

Given that the incurably curious Florentine conducted detailed studies of pretty much just about everything, and succeeded therefore in completing only a handful of paintings, the discovery of the Salvator Mundi really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. And a painting that was sold for just £45 in 1956 is today valued at in excess of £120 million.

Happily, this coincides with an exhibition of his work that the National Gallery will be putting on between now and February next in London, and which will now include the newly authenticated Leonardo. Almost as excitingly, the exhibition will also provide an opportunity to scrutinize a rarely seen exact replica of The Last Supper that Leonardo so disastrously experimented with, and which began to deteriorate almost from the moment he finished it.

Interestingly, no reference was made by Bruce to the fascinating article in the New Yorker on the laborious and thorny authentication process that the Salvator Mundi underwent (here). David Grann began his typically expansive piece as a fairly standard overview of how a lost masterpiece becomes authenticated. But halfway through, it suddenly morphed into an exposé on Peter Paul Biro, a Hungarian émigré based in Montreal who claimed, enterprisingly, to have pioneered a method of authenticating artworks by revealing hidden fingerprints using his own microscopic photography. Coincidently, the article suggested, he had more than a passing acquaintance with many of the works he successfully “authenticated”.

That I suppose would have been a different programme. As it was, Bruce used the compact hour to confidently and concisely present a crisp overview of Leonardo’s work and life, and to offer up a mouth-watering preview of the National Gallery’s exhibition. The sight of her serenely and authoritatively chatting away in French and Italian to academics in Paris and Florence ought to have been enough to silence her many doubters. Needless to say, it did nothing of the sort, and they all complained in their droves about it.

This programme did exactly what it should have done. It made the exhibition unmissable. And the National Gallery is to be congratulated for embracing an exhibit other institutions might have shied away from.

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