Art historian Nicola Barbatelli discovered the Lucan Portrait (bottom) in Italy. Photo: Jonathan BorgArt historian Nicola Barbatelli discovered the Lucan Portrait (bottom) in Italy. Photo: Jonathan Borg

The authenticity of a painting claimed to be a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci is at the centre of a dispute between the University of Malta and an Italian entrepreneur.

The so-called Lucan Portrait was meant to be the centrepiece of a new exhibition organised by Oscar Generale, an Italian film producer, at the University of Malta’s Valletta campus later this year.

But the university has refused permission for the exhibition on the grounds that its academic experts determined the painting did not qualify for attribution to the famed Renaissance artist. This, in turn, led the organisers to threaten legal action to recover €500,000 in expenses they say they have incurred.

The Lucan Portrait, depicting a man with a long beard and wearing a dark hat, was discovered in 2008 in a private collection in Italy, where it had been thought by its owners to show astronomer Galileo Galilei.

The exhibition in Malta was to be curated by art historian Nicola Barbatelli, who discovered the painting. He is the director of the Museo delle Antiche Genti di Lucania, where it is on display.

“An extraordinary work of art attributed to the artist after many years of scientific research, the self-portrait gives us a good idea of what the artist looked like,” Mr Barbatelli told the Times of Malta in an interview late last year.

“The fact that the Lucan Portrait was discovered after 500 long years purely by chance – by a family in a cupboard at their house in Salerno – adds even more mystery to the story, thus making the painting ever so intriguing.”

Its authenticity, however, is not a matter of consensus among art historians, who, despite several investigations, remain divided over whether the portrait is truly an original work by da Vinci.

Discussions between the university and the organisers of the planned exhibition have been ongoing for months, but last week, the promoters received an e-mail informing them that the event could not be hosted at the Valletta campus. The university said that after receiving “expert academic advice” from its art history department, its legal office had advised against hosting the exhibition “in view of the controversial nature of the attribution of the portrait to Leonardo da Vinci”.

Mr Barbatelli dismissed the suggestion outright, insisting there were no academics at the university with sufficient expertise on the subject.

Their assessment, he continued, must have been based on a stylistic assessment carried out “with an embarrassing degree of superficiality”.

He said it was regrettable that the university had not given weight to the assessment by several reputable institutions, which supported the attribution of the portrait to da Vinci.

A spokesman for the university confirmed that permission to host the painting as a da Vinci had been refused after its experts considered the evidence and reached their conclusion.

He added that, contrary to the organisers’ assertions, it had never given its consent for the exhibition to go ahead.


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