Rotterdam Kunsthal exhibits Leonardo’s only sculpture—or is it?

Bust of Christ is centrepiece of popular exhibition


The central exhibit in a large exhibition at the Rotterdam Kunsthal is causing controversy. The Kunsthal, normally known for its popular exhibitions such as “Art with balls: Christmas tree decorations by artists” or “Jimi Hendrix in Holland”, is showing a large exhibition called “Leonardo da Vinci: inventor, scientist, artist” (until 17 March). This consists mainly of models based on the artist’s designs, copies made by contemporary European artists, facsimiles and multimedia displays (part of the exhibition has already been seen in Sweden and Germany).

One exhibit however, only seen in Holland, has been billed by the organisers as the only known sculpture attributed to Leonardo. It is a terracotta bust of “Christ as a young man” which first came to light in 1924 when it was bought by the artist Louis Gallaudt from a convent in southern Italy. It was sold at Sotheby’s London on 11 December 1931, and bought by the Roman Aglietti family, who turned out to be relatives of Gallaudt. The work was first attributed to Leonardo in 1931, although seven years later a certificate of authentication by Adolfo Venturi attributed it to Verrocchio. Venturi stated that the bust may have been made “at the time when the young Leonardo was working at his side, and probably with the help of his great pupil”.

In 1952 the bust was included in the Leonardo quincentenary exhibition in Bologna organised by Carlo Pedretti, now director of the Armand Hammer Institute for Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the scholar most associated with his oeuvre. Numerous papers by Pedretti attributing the work to Leonardo have since appeared. Research by Professor Martin Kemp, leading British Leonardo scholar, has included thermoluminescence testing which dates the piece to between 1350 and 1550. He has also noted stylistic similarities, particularly in the hair, between the sculpture and various drawings by the artist such as the Windsor studies for the heads of St James the Greater and St Philip in “The Last Supper” .

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, the leading Dutch authority on the artist, Michel Kwakkelstein, said, “There are no other sculptures to compare this to. In the literature there are only references. True, this sculpture does not look like a Verrocchio. The mouth is open and it has a strong emotional character which was vital for Leonardo. The curls in the hair are similar to his style. But its history is so bizarre.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Leonardo’s only sculpture—or is it?'