Last month, a few days after the the National Post reported on the mysterious disappearance of the most expensive painting ever sold, Leonardo da Vinci’s long lost portrait of Jesus of Nazareth, an email came to the newsroom.
It was one sentence long: “Do you really want to know where the Salvator Mundi is?”
Attached was a photograph of a slim, bearded, grey-haired man, holding that morning’s newspaper as if in a proof-of-life image from kidnappers, and behind him, in an ornate wooden frame, was the unmistakable adult Jesus in a blue robe, two fingers of his right hand raised, a transparent orb in his left. On closer inspection, there was only the slightest sense — maybe in the eyes, or the crook of the Christ figure’s unsmiling lips — that this image was not quite as ethereally striking as the one for which a Saudi prince paid $450-million, before it vanished without explanation in advance of a scheduled exhibition in Abu Dhabi.
In fact, this was not the original Salvator Mundi, just a nearly perfect replica, and the sender was the artist’s friend. But that revelation is not where the story ends. It is where it begins, because that replica is just one item in a private collection of paintings that must be one of the great artistic wonders of Canada — an entirely derivative collection of mostly life-sized masterworks from Italian Renaissance luminaries such as Leonardo and Michelangelo to Dutch Old Masters and English landscapes and French Impressionists, all painted by the precise hand of one retired electrical motor and generator repairman, Cosimo Geracitano, 71.
His house in Coquitlam, BC, is like the Louvre, the Uffizi, and the Rijksmuseum all in one, chock full of famous paintings, plus a few masterpieces whose originals are not in museums at all, such as his living room ceiling, which reproduces Michelangelo’s famed Sistine Chapel scene of God creating Adam.
There are 45 in total, including 18 in his living room alone. Salvator Mundi is his favourite because of the magic in the eyes.
“I take my time,” he said of his artistic copying. “I take a long time.”
But there is only so much time and so much space. Today, three and a half years after the death of his wife Caterina saw Geracitano’s artistic output spike dramatically to become a daily exercise, with more than 20 painted since her passing, he is running out of display space.
“There is no more room in my house,” he said in an interview, sounding at once sad and proud.
As he tours a reporter around, he says that living among these works of other people’s art makes him feel like Lorenzo de’ Medici, popularly known as the Magnificent, the great arts patron of Renaissance Florence.
Those of which he is especially proud include da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, 1490, which he painted one hair at a time; Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, which he was able to get extra close to in the Mauritshuis in The Hague; Raphael’s Self Portrait, 1504-1506; Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, 1888; John Constable’s The Haywain, 1821; Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, 1480 (approx.); and Canaletto’s painting of Venice’s Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge, 1735.
These paintings are not bright, cheery caricatures like Disney’s world pavilions. They are not campy knock-offs like Madame Tussaud’s wax figures. They are simply faithful copies, produced as exactly as he is able over the course of many months.
“My replica is exactly the same in every little tiny detail,” he said. “At the end, I’m happy. I search always the ways to make it better.”
Typically, he travels to the museum in question, where staff let him sit for hours, even sometimes closer than the general public is allowed, or they let him take close-up photographs.
He enjoys his recreations so much he wants to see them every day, to live among them. He has filled his home to bursting with the greatest art in the world, all by himself.
“I take great joy in them,” he said. Sometimes, he will buy a poster from the gift shop to take home and divide it into sections, spending hours studying every square inch.
If the artist painted on canvas, he paints on canvas. If it was wood, he uses wood. He mixes all his colours from the three primaries: red, yellow, and blue, plus white. He also uses a grid to lay out the image.
He is not like a forger, trying to replicate the effects of age to imitate old paintings as they appear today, as physical artifacts. Rather, he said he seeks that feeling Leonardo must have had when he stopped working on the Mona Lisa, which inspired his famous line that art is never finished, only abandoned.
“I’m trying to make an exact same copy in the condition it used to be when the artist just finished the painting,” he said. “I’m not only replicating, I’m restoring too.”
Geracitano grew up in the village of Bivongi in Reggio Calabria, near the toe of Italy’s boot, where his father still lives. He started painting as a boy and his first work was of a sheep, based on a dream he had about escaping the village by riding it. His brother liked it so much he cut the whole wall and moved it to save the painting, now weathered after decades outside.
He never went to art school, but painted for pleasure until he was about 40, when work and life got in the way, and only started again in his 60s.
These days he is working on a Monet and the especially large Allegory of the Planets and Continents by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1752, which is likely to take six months.
“I needed to express myself,” he said, without the slightest trace of irony.