Leonardo da Vinci and the Bust of Flora: ARTE Documentary on an Early 20th Century Berlin Art Scandal


From the 2nd to presumably the 30th November 2020, all the museums of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are closed to the public. This closure has also affected the special exhibition Plain Talk: About the History of the Bode-Museum, which was supposed to open on 18 November 2020 but will start after the museums reopen. An ARTE documentary is now dedicated to one of the exhibition’s most fascinating topics. A bust of the goddess Flora, allegedly by Leonardo da Vinci, and acquired by Wilhelm von Bode in 1909, continues to keep art historians in suspense even today in what has developed into one of the most spectacular art controversies of the 20th century.

An Art Thriller Entwined with the Leonardo Research

There is hardly another museum acquisition made during the Wilhelmine Empire that aroused so much public attention as the wax Bust of Flora, portraying the Greek goddess of flowers. Wilhelm von Bode, general director of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen (Prussian Art Collections) and the founding director of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (now the Bode-Museum), purchased the work in July 1909 for Berlin’s Skulpturensammlung (Sculpture Collection) – in the belief that it was a Leonardo original. The ensuing art scandal that Bode stirred up in Europe was unprecedented in the history of the museums and to date has not been conclusively resolved.

More than 700 articles and essays were published in the international press and specialist art historical literature alone during the two years following the acquisition. These texts essentially revolved around questions of “authenticity”: Was the bust – as Bode claimed – a work by the artistic genius Leonardo da Vinci or perhaps by someone in his workshop, or was it made by the British wax sculptor Richard Cockle Lucas in the mid-19th century? Had Wilhelm von Bode therefore made a correct or false decision about the acquisition? Generations of art historians have to the present day continued to rack their brains over the attribution of the Bust ofFlora.

Following Leads in England and France

In preparation for the Plain Talk exhibition on the history of the Bode-Museum, curator Neville Rowley re-examined research on the Flora case. Tracking down clues led him to the Warburg Institute and Bonhams Fine Art Auctioneers in London, as well as to the Scottish Highlands and to the Louvre in Paris. It was there that the Leonardo expert Vincent Delieuvin made a very interesting analogy between the Mona Lisa and the Bust of Flora. Margarete Kreuzer’s documentary accompanies the curator and tells the story of the art thriller emerging from the Leonardo research: Will the latest laboratory technology be able to prove that the work in question is, in fact, a bust by the Renaissance genius?

Leonardo da Vinci und die Flora-Büste will make its debut broadcast (in German, French) on Sunday, 22 November 2020, at 4:15 pm on ARTE and will be available in the ARTE-Mediathek as of 21 November 2020.

On Saturday, 21 November 2020, at 6:30 pm, rbb Kultur – Das Magazin on the rbb television station (and the rbb-Mediathek) focuses on additional exciting stories from the Bode-Museum (in German).

Important restoration and conservation measures as well as art-technological examinations presented in the exhibition "Plain Talk" were made possible by the generous support of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung.