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.