My Bella Basilicata

06 August 2013

Acerenza and the Lost Leonardo

The Cathedral at Acerenza

Acerenza is a pretty place. Set up on a massif high at the end of a squiggly road, its position above the Bradano River has been enviable and strategic since before the Roman age. Like many towns in this area, it was the Middle Ages that left the most lasting features on Acerenza, endowing it with narrow pedestrian lanes and petite but appealing palazzi. Parts of the protective walls, punctuated with guardly gates, still cradle the compact centro storico. Captivating vistas are revealed from every overlook.

During the Renaissance period Acerenza was passed around as a baron’s trophy, handed off from one noble family to another. Naturally, aristocrats ran in the same circles and entertained dignitaries and luminaries from other regions.

So what, you say? Well, a particular noble family who transferred to Acerenza from Florence had a famous friend, Leonardo da Vinci.  It was already known that the Segni family had been in possession of a Leonardo drawing of Neptune, a token from their artist-friend to Antonio Segni as a parting gift.

In 2008, when a historian named Barbitelli was conducting research in Acerenza and came across a painting that the current owners had always believed was a portrait of Galileo, he saw a striking similarity to a portrait of Leonardo in the Uffizi as well as what is believed to be a self-portrait in Torino, and remembered the family’s friendship with the artist. When he saw an inscription on the back written upside-down and backwards as Leonardo preferred to sign his works, he was convinced this was a lost Leonardo – not a mere portrait by the legendary man, but one created by his own hand, of his own likeness.

Experts from the art world as well as the authorities at the Leonardo museum in Vinci authenticated the painting, which was put on display in a museum in nearby Vaglio.  Other portraits, prints, and documents from various sources, including the Leonardo museum, build a strong case to convince the viewer that this painting is the real deal.  Recent forensic fingerprint analysis undertaken by the Carabinieri and the University of Chieti are said to further validate the claims of authenticity.

Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait

The image of a middle-aged man with flowing auburn hair and a billowy beard was painted on wood, and was scratched and pocked. Blueberry eyes peer out and follow your movements.

The portrait will be summering in Sorrento, as part of a special exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance,” where it will stand in good company among works by Donatello, Tintoretto and Lorenzo Lotto from June 5 until September 26.  It will then be returned to its permanent home at the Museo delle Antiche Genti Lucane in Vaglio, near Potenza.