MY BOSS, Harry, had come in during the second half of my lecture and spent it lurking in the back of the hall. As soon as the last of my students had filed out, he climbed down and leaned back against one of the seats in the front row. “Interesting lecture, Daniel,” he said. “Is it true about John?”
“Well, Leonardo didn’t leave any notes regarding his models, so we can’t be sure. And despite the recent renovations, The Last Supper had deteriorated so badly that it’s impossible to tell for sure who was who. All I know is that it is probably not Mary Magdalene, or a hidden conspiracy.” I snorted my disdain for a popular novelist’s flight of fancy—not the first one to think that way, to be fair, but I preferred scholarship to imagination. “It might be a woman—Leonardo preferred painting women—but the fact is that it bears a remarkable resemblance to drawings in his notebooks, which, despite the femininity of the facial features, are definitely those of a young man. Possibly Giacopo di Careggi or one of his other apprentices. Leonardo had a fondness for attractive young men.”
“Was he gay?”
“Leonardo? Or Giacopo?”
“Leonardo, but either.”
“Leonardo was, probably. He’d been arrested on sodomy charges in Florence as a young man. Everyone thinks of him as this bearded old man, but from contemporary references, he was quite a beautiful youth himself, tall and muscular. There aren’t any known portraits of him from his young adulthood, unless you believe that Verrocchio’s Angel Rafael is one. Some do.”
I shrugged. “It’s possible, but impossible to confirm.” I closed my laptop, turned off the projector and disconnected it, and packed the laptop in my battered leather satchel along with my lecture notes. “At any rate, the drawings in the papers discovered at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence three years ago are definitely Leonardo’s, and definitely male. Even if the painting of John looks decidedly female.”
“Why do you think it could be one of his apprentices?”
“He used them like that, quite frequently. Just as his old master, Verrocchio, did. Assistants in artists’ workshops did a lot of everything.” Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I headed for the door. I had about an hour to catch some lunch, then I had office hours. With final projects looming, I expected I’d be busy all afternoon. “Why the sudden interest in Leonardo?” While Harry was the head of the Art History department, his tastes ran more toward Georges Braque and the Cubists.
“I got a call from the Uffizi this morning.”
I stopped, my hand on the classroom door, and turned back toward him. “The Uffizi?”
“Yeah. There’s been another discovery. You remember hearing about the earthquake in Tuscany last weekend?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “I thought there hadn’t been any significant damage….”
“There hadn’t—not to any buildings or anything. But apparently there was a rockfall in the hills near Florence, and yesterday a hiker found a cache of what they think are fifteenth-century artworks.”
“Yep. Paintings, drawings, gold cups and bowls, jewelry—all neatly wrapped and stored in a wooden wagon. They’ve closed off the site, of course, but your old friend Luca wants you to call him back. Seems like he was impressed with your work identifying those papers as missing Leonardo notes, and he wants you to take a look at the cache to see if there’s anything of value.”
“‘Anything of value’? Jesus Christ, of course there’s stuff of value there!” I yanked the door open and took off at a run for my office. I had to call Luca Anzione and find out what he could tell me.
“DANIELE, my friend! How is New York?”
“Crowded and extremely noisy. Luca, what’s going on?”
He told me. In great detail, as Luca was wont to do. Half the time I tuned him out, but this—this was way too exciting. I needed every detail Luca was ready to give me, and then some.
The basic story was this: after the earthquake—a very minor one, by Italian standards—a hiker came across a tumble of rocks from a minor avalanche. He was skirting the rockfall when he caught sight of something gold higher up the scree, and on investigating, found a battered gold cup and more importantly, an opening in the rocks. He recognized the cup as something valuable and took it along to the Uffizi for them to look at. Much excitement ensued.
They’d been keeping it hush-hush, with the hiker’s cooperation, but Luca, who was a High Muckety-Muck at the Uffizi Gallery, was hungry for the publicity that would bring more attention to the museum. Museums live and die on publicity, and the Uffizi, while it held some of the greatest treasures known to mankind, was no different. If anything in the cache was related to any of the great Renaissance artists, that would be fantastic publicity. If anything was directly related to Leonardo, arguably Florence’s most famous son, the museum’s fortunes would be made. They’d had a major find in the four pages of Leonardo’s notes discovered three years earlier, but notes, even Leonardo’s, weren’t flashy.
A secret stash of Leonardo’s artwork, when only about fifteen known paintings still existed? That would be flashy. And given the ongoing fascination with that epitome of the Renaissance Man, the benefit to the Uffizi would be stupendous. No wonder Luca was excited.
But for that very reason, he wanted me to come help identify and catalogue the find. It wasn’t unheard of for unscrupulous curators to “discover” entirely fraudulent pieces in order to draw attention to their facilities, and the museum wanted to avoid any hint of fraud. I had published a well-received monograph on the four Leonardo pages in addition to my doctoral and post-graduate work on Leonardo’s apprentices, notably his most notorious apprentice, Andrea Salaì. Most notorious for those who’d ever heard of him, anyway—he was still pretty obscure. And not in Leonardo’s class as an artist, either. Anyway, I guess that gave me some chops as far as Luca was concerned, and since he’d been given the task of analyzing the find, I was The Guy.
Harry had his own agenda—the university has its own nice little museum, and he had hopes of being included when the find became a touring exhibit, which was likely. He arranged to have my classes covered and sent me off to Florence with strict instructions to encourage Luca’s cooperation in the traveling-exhibit scheme. So less than twenty-four hours after the phone call, I was in the air on my way to Vespucci Airport.
LUCA met me at the airport. It was already late, too late to head to the site on my arrival, so he took me to my hotel. I had the bellman take my suitcase up to my room while we had a drink in a quiet corner of the bar, but I kept my leather satchel with me. “You still have that old thing?” Luca laughed as we settled into a corner booth. “While you are here we will have to find you a new one. You are in Italy—best leatherworkers in the world! Gucci has nice bags.”
“Gucci has a lot of nice things,” I agreed. None I could afford, but that was Luca, all over.
“Sì, sì. We get you a new bag at Gucci when we are done.”
“So, tell me—what’s going on? Where are we?”
“We are trying to run herd on the press, who have somehow heard that there is something in the Senese Clavey hills, and so we have the area under armed guard. It is not hard to find—there are tarpaulins and floodlights and barriers, so of course there is all kinds of speculation. We have only said it is an archeological site.”
He reached into his own bag—Gucci, of course—and withdrew a folder. “Here is a partial inventory and a few photos, just what we have been able to see without moving the items. You know Paolo Baldacci?”
“Yeah, I worked with him on the Leonardo papers. He’s good. What does he say?”
Luca leaned close, although the bar was practically empty. “He thinks there are several Botticellis, and at least one Ghirlandaio. Others may be Verrocchios, or early works by any of his apprentices—Perugino, di Credi, Botticini…. There are any number of boxes wrapped in oilcloth, which we will be moving to the museum in the morning, once you have looked at them. There will be a representative of the department of antiquities there too, to supervise. This is the biggest thing to hit Florence since the Arno flooded.”
“Hopefully with less damage.” My mind was spinning. Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino…. So much had been lost to time, to flood, to fire…. “Photos?”
“Yes.” He handed me three eight-by-ten glossies. One was of the site: a battered wooden wagon full of stuff, and more artifacts on the ground, some of which looked like painted panels, some of which glittered gold in the flash. The second was of a painting half-covered by a drape of rotting cloth, but from the subtle colors and delicate lines, it could very well be a Botticelli.
The third…. “Giovanni,” Luca said. “From The Last Supper.”
It had been varnished, but time and the environment in the cave had dulled the finish, so it didn’t get the flashback from the camera it might have. It wouldn’t have mattered. The face that looked up at me with those bright eyes was indeed that of the disciple, the one only yesterday I’d said wasn’t the Magdalene. “Son of a bitch,” I said. “It is John.”
Or whoever, whatever model Leonardo had used. He wasn’t draped in the robes of the apostle, though; instead he lay sprawled on a red couch, a thin white cloth draped across his lap in teasing modesty. One arm was thrown over his head, the other resting across his belly. He looked nowhere near as girlish as the apostle in the painting. “God, what a beauty,” I said.
“Leonardo. It’s got to be a Leonardo.”
“Not so fast, Luca. It could be. Or it could be one of his students painted it. Salaì imitated him quite well, as did Melzi. That was how they learned, remember? We’d need to have a real Leonardo expert test it before we could know for sure.”
“But it’s possible.” Luca sighed. “It was just lying on the floor of the cave. It’s all just on the floor of the cave. I wonder why they put it all there. Were they trying to avoid Savonarola’s bonfires?”
“It may have been that. Or some other political reason. This stuff may not have been here that long—it may be from some wealthy family that in the 1700s had to hide it for some reason and never came back. It might even be from the Second World War—you know how art was hidden then.”
“Not these. No. These—someone would have known about this. These are….”
“Yeah,” I said into his silence. “They are.”