Leonardo Was Here -- Or Was He?


The Virgin on the Rocks was one of the paintings that Da Vinci did with the help of his apprentice, Ambrogio de Predis (AP Photo/National Gallery)

Going off of yesterday's post about the recent discovery of a possible Da Vinci painting, I wanted to delve a little further into why historians have such trouble pinning down the great Leonardo. Questions of authenticity have plagued Da Vinci scholars for a few reasons. But it also begs the question -- why does it matter?

In Milan, Da Vinci kept a handful of apprentices at hand to learn from him and contribute to commissioned works. According to Shana Priwer's "101 Things You Didn't Know About Da Vinci," this meant that Da Vinci would commonly collaborate with his apprentices on the same painting. In addition, the students often copied the great master's paintings as part of their apprenticeship. As a result, some works by his pupils have been mistakenly attributed to Da Vinci over the years. To this day, scholars argue over which works (and which parts of works) belong to Da Vinci.

Doubts about authenticity are not unique to Da Vinci. Shakespeare, for one, has had his share of doubters. Some question whether he was the one who wrote all those plays. Others, according the Betram Fields' book "Players," argue over whether he contributed (as "Hand D") to the lesser-known play, "Sir Thomas More."

To play devil's advocate, so what if Da Vinci did the entire painting or just parts? In the field of art, shouldn't the foremost question be whether the piece itself is good or notable? In this way, who did what is more of an insignificant afterthought. And, even in the context of history, does it tell us anything significant about Da Vinci if we pinpoint which strokes he donated to his apprentice's painting?

Or, is it just the appeal of knowing that "Leonardo was here" that has people (myself included) so excited to find out the details? I'm not quite sure, but I'd love to hear what you think.

For your reading pleasure:

Did Da Vinci really sketch a primitive version of the car? Are there secret messages in Da Vinci's Last Supper? Michelangelo's Paintings