I have always been fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci. Not only is he an insanely talented artist, he was a true genius. The original renaissance man. My love for him was cemented when I read Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci last year (if you couldn’t tell by my inability to shut up about it). So when I saw a new book about da Vinci, I obviously needed it. Especially because The Last Leonardo delves more into the art world, which I’ve always been curious about. I’ve always kind of regretted not studying art history in college, and what could be better than reading about one of my favorite artists and his (well, maybe his) most recently discovered painting.
(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)
(From Goodreads) For two centuries, art dealers and historians searched in vain for the Holy Grail of art history: a portrait of Christ as the Salvator Mundi (“Savior of the World”) by Leonardo da Vinci. At last, in 2005 a compelling candidate was discovered by a small-time Old Masters dealer at a second-rate auction house in New Orleans. After a six-year restoration, an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, and the help of canny Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, the painting was sold to the news-making Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. After the very-public fallout between Rybolovlev and Bouvier, the painting went on to make headlines again in 2017 as the most expensive painting ever sold when a proxy of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman won the masterwork at a Christie’s auction for $450 million.
But controversy still surrounds the artwork: Did the auction house—and the art dealers, curators, and art historians behind this find–actually have the right painting, or is there another? Did Leonardo even paint a Salvator Mundi? Some scholars argue he was only occasionally painting at the time the work is dated. Was the painting restored to such an extent that it became a Leonardo, though it was in fact the work of his apprentices? In short: Is it the genuine artifact, the result of a frenzied marketing genius—or perhaps a little of both?
In a thriller-like pursuit of the truth, Ben Lewis examines the five-hundred-year Cinderella-story of this painting and, astonishingly, turns up the smoking guns, including the burnt initials of ownership by an English king on a different Salvator Mundi and the identity of the American family who owned the painting for some of its missing decades. Through this journey, we come to see how the global art market evolved to what it is today, and we are left to ask ourselves what art means to humanity, both past and present.
Before I picked up The Last Leonardo, I had heard of Salvator Mundi. The world’s most expensive painting that hasn’t been seen since it was sold (for an amount of money my middle-class brain can’t even begin to fathom. Since I am an intensely curious person – and a serious da Vinci fan – naturally, I needed to know more. Ben Lewis’s book was the perfect way to find out everything I needed to know about the Salvator Mundi.
The first thing that really struck me was how well-written this book is. It’s essentially a history book, but didn’t feel dry at all. And this is coming from a former history major who’s read her fair share of (dry) history books. This book was engaging and interesting, and it stayed that way the entire book. To be fair, I’m a huge history nerd, and a da Vinci fan, so maybe take that with a grain of salt.
I was also impressed by how well-researched this book is. I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of da Vinci, 600-pages of (almost) everything I every wanted to know about the renaissance man, last year, and The Last Leonardo still talked about things I didn’t already know. Like details about the pieces of wood da Vinci painted on. It really was fascinating, and I learned more than enough to make reading this book worth it.
★★★★☆ – I really enjoyed The Last Leonardo. If you’re looking for a book about everything da Vinci, go with Isaacson’s biography. But, if you’re curious to learn more about the artist/genius, or about the world’s most expensive painting, I’d definitely recommend this one.
The Last Leonardo will be available in bookstores June 25. If you’re interested, you can order a copy on Amazon now.
To get the audiobook for free, use this link to sign up for a free trial of Audible and choose The Last Leonardo as one of your two free books.
This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
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