“Beneath its diligent research, the book is a study in creativity: how lớn define it, how khổng lồ achieve sầu it.... Most important, Isaacson tells a powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life.”

—New Yorker


He was history’s most creative sầu genius. What secrets can he teach us?

The author of the acclaimed bestsellers Steve sầu Jobs, Einstein, & Benjamin Franklin brings Leonarbởi vì da Vinci to life in this fascinating new biography.

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On November 15, Christie’s auctioned the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in private hands, Salvator Mundi. Here is an excerpt on that painting from Walter Isaacson’s new biography, Leonarvị da Vinci, published this month.


In 2011 a newly rediscovered work by Leonarbởi surprised the art world. It was a painting known as Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World), which showed Jesus gesturing in blessing with his right h& while holding a solid crystal orb in his left.

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The Salvator Mundi motif, which features Christ with an orb topped by a cross, known as a globus cruciger, had become very popular by the early 1500s, especially among mỏi northern European painters. Leonardo’s version contains some of his distinctive sầu features: a figure that manages to be at once both reassuring và unsettling, a mysterious straight-on stare, an elusive sầu smile, cascading curls, & sfumakhổng lồ softness.

Before the painting was authenticated, there was historic evidence that one like it existed. In the inventory of Salai’s estate was a paint- ing of “Christ in the Manner of God the Father.” Such a piece was catalogued in the collections of the English king Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649, & also Charles II, who restored the monarchy in 1660. The historical trail of Leonardo’s version was lost after the painting passed from Charles II lớn the Duke of Buckingmê mệt, whose son sold it in 1763. But a historic reference remained: the widow of Charles I had commissioned Wenceslaus Hollar to lớn make an etching of the painting. There were also at least twenty copies painted by some of Leonardo’s followers.


Salvator Mundi

The trail of the painting reappeared in 1900, when it was acquired by a British collector who did not suspect that it was by Leonarbởi. It had been damaged, overpainted, and so heavily varnished that it was unrecognizable, & it was attributed khổng lồ Leonardo’s student Boltraffio. The work was later catalogued as a copy of Boltraffio’s copy. When the collector’s estate sold it at auction in 1958, it fetched less than one hundred dollars.

The painting was sold again in 2005, to a consortium of art dealers & collectors who believed that it might be more than just a copy of a copy of a Leonarvày painting. The subsequent authentication process reveals a lot about Leonardo’s work. The consortium brought it to a Manhatchảy art historian and dealer named Robert Sitháng, who oversaw a five-year process of cleaning it carefully và quietly showing it to experts.

Amuốn those consulted were Nicholas Penny, then director of London’s National Gallery, và Carmen Bambach of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. It was brought khổng lồ London in 2008 so that it could be directly compared with the National Gallery’s version of Virgin of the Rocks by other experts, including Luke Syson, who was then curator of Italian paintings at the gallery, David Alan Brown of Washington’s National Gallery of Art, & Pietro Marani, professor of art history at the Politecniteo di Milano. And a điện thoại tư vấn went out lớn the the dean of Leonarbởi scholars, Martin Kemp, a professor at Oxford known for his scrupulous scholarship. “We’ve sầu got something I think you would want to lớn look at,”Penny told Kemp.

When Kemp saw it, he was struông xã by the orb and hair. “It had that kind of presence that Leonardos have sầu,” he recalled. But it was not merely gut, intuition, & connoisseurship that au- thenticated Salvator Mundi. The painting duplicated almost precisely the 1650 Wenceslaus Hollar engraving that had been made from the original; it had the same snaking and lustrous curls, the same Leonardesque knot pattern on the sashes, and the irregular pleats on Christ’s xanh cloak that are also in Leonardo’s preparatory drawings.

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These similarities, however, were not dispositive sầu. There were many copies made by Leonardo’s followers; was it possible that this newly rediscovered painting was also a copy? Technical analysis helped to answer that. After the picture was cleaned, high-resolution photos & X-rays helped reveal a pentimenkhổng lồ showing that the thumb of Jesus’ right h& had originally been placed differently. That is not something a copyist would need to lớn vị. In addition, shining an infra- red light that reflected off the white priming of the panel showed that the painter had pressed his palm against the wet paint above sầu Christ’s left eye lớn achieve a sfumato lớn blurring, which was a distinctive sầu Leo- narbởi technique. The work had been painted on walnut, just like other Leonardos of the period, in many very thin layers of almost trans- lucent paint. By that point most of the experts agreed that it was an authentic Leonarvày. As a result, the art consortium was able khổng lồ sell it for cthua lớn $80 million in 2013 lớn a Swiss art dealer, who then resold it to lớn a Russian fertilizer billionaire for $127 million.

Unlike other Salvator Mundi paintings, Leonardo’s offers the viewer shifting emotional interactions, similar to those found in the Mona Lisa. The misty aura & blurred sfumakhổng lồ lines, especially of the lips, produces a psychological mystery and an ambiguous smile that seems lớn change slightly with each new look. Is there a hint of a smile? Look again. Is Jesus staring at us or into lớn the distance? Move from side to lớn side & ask again.

The curling hair, coiled with energy, seems lớn spring into lớn motion as it reaches the shoulders, as if Leonarvì chưng were painting the eddies of a flowing stream. They become more distinct và less soft as they reach the chest. This stems from his studies of acuity perspective: ob- jects that are closer to a viewer are less blurred.

Around the time he was working on Salvator Mundi, Leonarvị was doing his optics studies that explored how the eyes focus. He knew that he could create the illusion of three-dimensional depth in a painting by making the objects in the foreground sharper. The two fingers on Christ’s right h& that are closest to lớn us are drawn with a crisper delineation. It makes the h& pop out toward us, as if it’s in motion and giving us a blessing. Leonarvì chưng would reuse this technique a few years later with the pointing hands in two depictions of Saint John the Baptist.

There is, however, a puzzling anomaly in the painting, one that seems to lớn be an unusual lapse or unwillingness by Leonarvì chưng lớn links art & science. It involves the clear crystal orb that Jesus is holding. In one respect, it is rendered with beautiful scientific precision. There are three jagged bubbles in it that have the irregular shape of the tiny gaps in crystal called inclusions. Around that time, Leonarbởi vì had evaluated roông chồng crystals as a favor for Isabella d’Este, who was plan- ning khổng lồ purchase some, and he captured accurately the twinkle of inclusions. In addition, he included a deft and scientifically accurate touch, showing he had tried khổng lồ get the image correct: the part of Jesus’ palm pressing inkhổng lồ the bottom of the orb is flattened và lighter, as it would indeed appear in reality.

But Leonarvày failed to lớn paint the distortion that would occur when looking through a solid clear orb at objects that are not touching the orb. Solid glass or crystal, whether shaped like an orb or a lens, produces magnified, inverted, & reversed images. Instead, Leo- narvày painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it. At first glance it seems as if the heel of Christ’s palm displays a hint of refraction, but a closer look shows the slight double image occurs even in the part of the hvà not behind the orb; it is merely a pentimento lớn that occurred when Leonarvì chưng decided lớn shift slightly the hand’s position.

Christ’s toàn thân và the folds of his robe are not inverted or distorted when seen through the orb. At issue is a complex optical phenomenon. Try it with a solid glass ball. A hvà touching the orb will not appear to lớn be distorted. But things viewed through the orb that are an inch or so away, such as Christ’s robes, will be seen as inverted & re- versed. The distortion varies depending on the distance of the objects from the orb. If Leonarvì chưng had accurately depicted the distortions, the palm touching the orb would have sầu remained the way he painted it, but hovering inside the orb would be a reduced & inverted mirror image of Christ’s robes & arm.


Image through a crystal orb

Why did Leonarbởi vì not bởi vì this? It is possible that he had not noticed or surmised how light is refracted in a solid sphere. But I find that hard lớn believe. He was, at the time, deep inlớn his optics stud- ies, & how light reflects & refracts was an obsession. Scores of notebook pages are filled with diagrams of light bouncing around at different angles. I suspect that he knew full well how an object seen through a crystal orb would appear distorted, but he chose not lớn paint it that way, either because he thought it would be a distraction (it would indeed have looked very weird), or because he was subtly trying khổng lồ impart a miraculous quality khổng lồ Christ & his orb.