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. It has seen -and survived- many invaders through the millennia, but 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. 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 backwards as Leonardo preferred to sign his works, he was convinced this was a lost Leonardo - not a mere portrait of the legendary man, but one created by his own hand.
So went the captivating narrative proudly proclaimed to us by a barista in Acerenza during our visit. He told us that experts from the art world as well as the authorities at the Leonardo museum in Vinci had authenticated the painting. All of Acerenza was buzzing about it, not just because it had been discovered in their town, but because somehow it had been swiped out from under them and put on display in a museum in nearby Vaglio instead of in Acerenza itself. The injustice! railed our barista (along with a few choice words about the politicians and fools who allowed it to happen).
Seeing as we were in the area and Vaglio was located only about thirty kilometers from our lodgings, we decided to head over and see the exhibit. Finding information on the museum and opening hours proved a little more difficult than you would think, considering they were currently caching a treasure that rocked the art world. We finally located a brochure on the Museo delle Antiche Genti Lucane, which they had translated into English as "The Museum of the Old People," which conjured up a vision of a room of old folks in rocking chairs, instead of a display of ancient artifacts.
Vaglio, in contrast to attractive Acerenza, was a fairly depressing paese that retained little of its historic charm and looked mostly rebuilt in concrete. The museum was likewise fashioned from cement, gated and fenced in such a way that it resembled a penitentiary. What was purported to be "the" museum on the ancient Lucani housed a rather meager medley of artifacts and somewhat cheesey reconstructions. We forked over fourteen euros (each) to peer at the painting (twice what we would have paid to enter the famed Uffizi!)
The discovery was recent and the exhibit was hastily assembled. Other portraits, prints, and documents from various sources, including the Leonardo museum, built a strong case to convince the viewer that this painting was the real deal. We jockeyed for position, being jabbed by elbows of cell phone photographers and inattentive patrons. A blustery academic pushed us over so he could stand front and center while lecturing monotonously to a handful of students who took no interest in his lengthy and obviously boring discourse.
Finally we were able to stand before the poorly displayed portrait. Lighting was misplaced and glared off the protective glass. We had to move around, backwards and forwards to get a good angle to compensate for the blur. 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 peered out and followed our movements.
Overall we felt a little cheated. The poor quality of the exhibit and second-rate lighting and display of this precious piece certainly dulled our experience. But we were impressed with the evidence that it is, in fact, of Leonardo, and based on the other sketches, are inclined to believe that it was a self-portrait. And it was pretty exciting to see it, since few people had even heard of its discovery - yet here it was tucked away in a forgotten town in Basilicata. I just hope it can ultimately return to Acerenza. It would definitely be more cherished and charmingly-displayed in that lovely village.
This portrait from the Biblioteca Reale di Torino is widely thought to be a self-portrait of Leonardo, too. There are certainly some interesting similarities.
Raphael's famous fresco in the Vatican, The School of Athens, is also said to contain a depiction of Leonardo, standing in as Plato.
For fun, watch this video of Leonardo da Vinci's Paintings of Women.