The Lucan Table: are we sure it is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci?

A brief look at the so-called Lucan Table, attributed by some to Leonardo da Vinci: what we really know, what we should know.

"Tavola Lucana,""Tavola di Acerenza,""Portrait of Acerenza": different names for a table of modest quality found in 2008 and since then insistently and repeatedly accosted with the name of Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci, 1452 - Amboise, 1519), who is said by some to be its author. What do we know about this panel? How was it found? Most importantly: is it really the work of Leonardo, or is it at least attributable to his genius?

Tavola Lucana
Unknown artist, Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci known as Tavola Lucana, detail (variously dated; tempera grassa on panel, 59.6 x 43.9 cm; Private collection)

The painting made headlines in 2008, when a historian, Nicola Barbatelli, director of the Museo delle Antiche Genti di Lucania in Vaglio Basilicata (Potenza), unearthed the panel in Salerno at a private collection of a family originally from Acerenza (hence some of the names by which we refer to the work): the work is said to have moved from the Lucanian village to Campania in the 1950s. The question remains open as to how it came to Basilicata instead: according to Barbatelli’s reconstruction, the painting would have been owned by the Tuscan Segni family and would have followed it when part of the family moved to Acerenza. Certainly: we know from sources that Leonardo da Vinci had relations with a member of the family, Antonio, of whom he was a close friend, but it is also true that there is no documentary support for the (admittedly rather fanciful) hypothesis formulated by Barbatelli. Nor, much less, are there any documents attesting to a possible trip of Leonardo da Vinci himself to Lucania: very difficult, therefore, to think of a presence of the artist in Basilicata.

It has been thought that the work may represent Leonardo on the basis of a comparison with an entirely similar painting that is in the Uffizi Gallery (inventory number 1717) and which, in ancient times, was thought to be a self-portrait: it is actually a work from the late seventeenth century, as demonstrated in 1939 by an X-ray investigation that revealed that the painting was made on top of a panel dating back to the seventeenth century. Barbatelli, in particular, argued that the Lucanian painting was the original from which the author of the Uffizi portrait would have been inspired: this is another fascinating hypothesis, but one that is not matched by any documents. It was therefore desired to find confirmation of the goodness of Leonardo’s attribution through scientific analysis. Therefore, several investigations were conducted on the work, starting with carbon 14 dating, which allowed us to place the poplar panel on which the painting was made to a period between 1459 and 1523: an interesting datum that could open up a few more possibilities, but still far from decisive (carbon 14 examination cannot establish whether the panel was used later nor, of course, can it provide any indication of the author). The same applies to pigment analysis by X-ray spectroscopy, which revealed, in some areas not subjected to later reintegration, compatibility with a date to Leonardo’s age. Again, the painting has been subjected to graphological investigation: indeed, an inscription appears on the back, “Pinxit mea” (“I painted it”), written in mirror writing (as Leonardo da Vinci used to do). The graphologist who examined the inscription, Silvana Iuliano, has attributed it to Leonardo by comparing it with the known writings of the genius from Vinci: however, it is not known whether the inscription was affixed on another occasion and, being on the back of the painting, it cannot even be ruled out that it was drawn by a different hand than the one that made the painting and perhaps even at a different historical moment. Finally, a joint investigation by the University of Chieti and the Scientific Department of the Carabinieri found a fingerprint that was found to be compatible with a print that appears in the Lady with an Ermine: idle to mention that “compatibility” is not synonymous with certainty.

What we can say with certainty is that none of Leonardo’s specialists has pronounced without doubt in favor of the Leonardo attribution, which has instead been formulated and accepted by scholars from other areas (for example, by Peter Hohenstatt, a museography specialist, who has to his credit a number of publications of mostly popular slant on Leonardo: according to him, the panel would constitute "the first experimental realization of binocular vision, which then reaches a further milestone with the Mona Lisa with which Leonardo introduces the further innovation of sfumato"). It is also worth noting that there are no scholarly publications by Leonardo specialists proposing that the Lucan painting be included in Leonardo’s catalog without hesitation.

Who, then, is the author of the so-called Lucan Table? We cannot establish this with certainty. What is certain is that it is a painting whose quality differs markedly from that which characterizes Leonardo’s works, with which it is not even remotely comparable: it is quite clear that it is a stereotypical portrait, a painting that has nothing to do with the depth, technical skill and magnetism of Leonardo’s works. Nor should we expect the Acerenza painting to make a stable and lasting entry into scientific debate: it is simply safe to imagine that it will not even be taken into consideration, unlike what happened, for example, with the so-called Gallino Christ attributed to Michelangelo. And this is for a very simple reason: to use an effective expression by Tomaso Montanari, if mistaking the Gallino Christ for a Michelangelo was like mistaking a lion for a cat, mistaking the Acerenza panel for a Leonardo self-portrait is equivalent to taking a bicycle for an aircraft carrier.

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