A recent press conference in Rome saw the unveiling of a small painted tile of the Archangel Gabriel; the scholars who unearthed it, Ernesto Solari and Rosa Bonfantino, claim that it constitutes the earliest known work by Leonardo da Vinci.
The tile is made in the glazed earthenware style known as ‘majolica’, which is typical of renaissance Italy. The scholars claim that the tile was made by an 18-year-old Leonardo in 1471, and that it represents the artist’s own self-portrait as the angel; indeed, coded inscriptions on the tile read “I, Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452, represented myself as the Archangel Gabriel in 1471.” Solari claims that detailed scientific tests have confirmed the 15th-century origin of the tile.
Other experts, however, are not convinced by the claims of Solari and Bonfantino. Indeed, it is very common for works of art to be discovered and claimed as being by da Vinci. One example is La Bella Principessa, presented to the art world as being by the great Renaissance master but later claimed by the forger Shaun Greenhalgh who insists that the drawing is in fact his portrait of Sally, a cashier at a Co-op in Bolton. It is still not known whether Greenhalgh’s claim is genuine or simply a playful attempt to confuse the art world. Leonardo expert Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of Art History at the University of Oxford, has dismissed claims regarding the majolica tile, saying that “the chance of its being by Leonardo is less than zero. The silly season for Leonardo never closes.” According to Kemp, the quality of the tile is not of a level that would be expected of a work produced only one year before Leonardo’s Annunciation, which is far more sophisticated.
Applicants for History of Art should familiarise themselves with the processes by which works of art are dated and attributed to a particular artist. They might also like to consider the concept of forgery. Can forgeries be considered skilful works of art in and of themselves?