On the afternoon of April 27, 2005 my old friend, Robert Simon, an art dealer and Italian Renaissance scholar, brought me a painting that he had just purchased. It was a strange looking image of Christ as the Salvator Mundi. We talked about it a bit and I cleaned it, removing the recent varnish and repaints. The head was quite damaged. There was a split that traversed the entire length and it was immediately obvious that the panel had been planed down from the front. The blessing hand was well-preserved. I was not immediately mesmerized. I showed it to my husband, Mario Modestini, a great restorer and connoisseur of Italian paintings, who was 98 and in failing health. Mario studied the panel and after a few minutes said, “This is by a great artist. I don’t know who it is. A generation after Leonardo. It is slightly larger than life.” I was stunned because nothing had aroused Mario’s interest in this way for a long time.
I knew nothing about Leonardo’s late work. Robert told me that the painting was a version of a lost painting, known only from a 17th-century engraving, two drawings, and numerous copies. I began the restoration after Mario’s death. Integrating the losses in the head was exceptionally difficult because of the extraordinary finesse of the original. I began by underpainting them with the bright pink color that underlay the flesh tones, and added glazes and scumbles to match the subtle sfumato and gradations of the adjacent passages. This was possible because the damage, for the most part, did not consist of abrasion, that is, wholesale removal of the final modelling layers, although some features, in particular the proper right eye, had suffered from a harsh cleaning in the past. I removed my work over and over again, carrying on an imaginary dialogue with Mario, until I was convinced that my retouches did not cover any original paint and were reasonably consistent with the formal values of the composition.
A few pentimenti, or changes in the composition made by the artist, were obvious from the beginning, in particular, an earlier position of the thumb of the blessing hand. Such changes are an indication that a painting is not by a copyist. I did not immediately take this to mean that the painting was by Leonardo. I arrived at this conclusion during one of my many attempts to restore a damage in the upper lip characterized by an imperceptible transition for which I had begun to refer to a detailed photograph of the mouth of the Mona Lisa. I suddenly realized that the two paintings were by the same hand.
In September 2008, Robert took the painting to the National Gallery in London where it was examined by a number of Leonardo scholars, most of whom agreed that it was an autograph. When it returned to New York, I continued the restoration. The background was entirely modern, a muddy brown whose tonality was close to the hair, entrapping the image. Around the contours of the figure there were glimpses of the original, a deep black. I removed the repaint and extensive filling material applied to disguise the damage done by the plane. Most of the original had been scraped off but the extant paint proved that it was originally entirely black, like the backgrounds of other paintings by Leonardo, and I filled in the losses to match. With the agreement of several art historians, I suppressed the pentimento of the thumb.
The painting was exhibited to the public for the first time in 2011 in an exhibition in London, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. I presented a paper at a technical symposium held at the National Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition and showed the cleaned state image, which had not been published in the catalogue. Although not everyone agreed with the attribution, the arguments against it, which appeared in reviews of the exhibition in scholarly journals, were carefully considered. Little was said about the restoration itself and while I was not entirely satisfied with my work, neither was I ashamed of it.
Fast forward to July 2017. As I arrived at the Conservation Center, someone handed me a telephone message from Sandy Heller, whom I knew was the advisor to the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who had purchased the Salvator Mundi a few years earlier. He had decided to sell the painting. Loic Gouzer, the head of the Modern and Contemporary Art Department at Christie’s, had conceived the idea to offer it in his November sale. As soon as the announcement was made, polemics erupted about not only the attribution but also the extent of the restoration. I found myself defending both in seemingly endless interviews. I hoped that the media circus would end after the sale, but the record price and the mystery buyer only fueled it. Thomas Campbell, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, immediately posted on his Instagram page that 85 percent of the painting was by Dianne Modestini. I suppose that I should be flattered that he thought me capable of such a supernatural feat. The comment became the basis for absurd theories by soi-disant experts who air their views to eager journalists every few months. It is, to say the least, wearing.
Many Old Master paintings are grievously damaged. It can be problematic for the conservator involved. One might ask if it wouldn’t be wise to avoid such paintings. Their restoration entails many subjective decisions, and there will always be disagreement about what was done in direct correlation with the importance of the artist. The cleaning of Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne was widely criticized; when the Louvre decided to clean the badly damaged Saint John the Baptist, the intervention was limited to a conservative thinning of the centuries-old layers of oxidized varnish. The painting is now slightly more legible, but the pointing right arm remains almost entirely covered by 17th-century repaint. Removing it to reveal what remains of Leonardo’s original would inevitably cause outrage, not from the scholarly community, but by the same self-appointed watchdogs who rant about the Salvator Mundi. Is it worth the risk?