Three Visits to Kulenovic Museum, Karlskrona

Visit One (early 2009)

In the autumn of 2008, Rizah Kulenovic, after reading my work on Leonardo, invited me to visit and examine a painting linked with the name of Leonardo da Vinci. At first the claim seemed highly unlikely. But when I came to visit in early 2009, I came to the conclusion it is very probably a “lost” Leonardo, or more precisely a Leonardo that has remained in a private collection, which was lost from the attention of mainstream scholarship.

The painting shows three figures: a central Madonna, with a Christ Child in her lap, flanked by John the Baptist as a slightly older child on our left. The background is black. On closer inspection we note a marked contrast between the refined painting of the figures and the primitive application of this background. Part of the beautifully painted veil of the Madonna has been covered by the black overpainting. In at least one instance, we can see flowers underneath the black.

Black and/or very dark backgrounds became popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. One reason was practical. The quest to create three-dimensional effects through contrasting light and shade (chiaroscuro) favoured contexts where a light-filled,colourful portrait was placed against a dark background. In Italy, Mantegna, and Bellini were early masters of this technique. Leonardo added to this tradition a theoretical framework which he applied in paintings such as John the Baptist (Louvre, 1513-1516). A second reason for the dark backgrounds was religious. Whereas, the Catholic Renaissance had painted beautiful landscapes as examples of the Book of Nature that expressed the miracle of God’s creation, protestant artists sometimes saw worldly expressions as distractions from the divine world beyond. An extreme solution in the Calvinist tradition was to ban imagery entirely (Bilderstürm). A more moderate solution was black/very dark backgrounds. In some cases, Catholic paintings were given dark backgrounds to meet the new Protestant conventions The Karlskrona Madonna, Child and Infant Saint John fits neither of these categories. Leonardo or his students would never paint a portrait with near perfection and then cover it unprofessionally with a black background. A pious protestant covering a “sinful” worldly landscape would do so reverently and take care to keep intact the beauty of the original portrait, all the more so if it was linked with the name of one of the greatest names of renaissance art and science.

There are at least three other obvious possibilities: 1) that it was a Renaissance copy; 2) that it is a clever forgery; 3) that it was deliberately “damaged” to hide its true value. During the Renaissance there was a tradition whereby artists frequently painted several versions of a given scene. As the late Otto Kurz noted, the distinction between positive copies and negative fakes1 only evolved gradually. In the 16th century, with painters such as Brueghel, making copies became a new line of business2. These Renaissance and Mannerist copies typically changed tiny details, noticeable only to a connoisseur, but kept intact the overall effect of the original. Copies try to persuade us that they are identical with the original. In the case of forgeries this is same. Poor forgeries typically show something that betrays itself by being in better condition than the original. Superb forgeries try to integrate pentimenti, effects of age and other nearly invisible effects to persuade us that we are looking at something original. The roughness of the black background in the Karlskrona Madonna does not correspond with the goals of copiers and forgers.

This leaves us with a third possibility. Owners of major collections, especially in areas which are politically unstable and war-torn, constantly face a danger that their best pieces will be confiscated or simply stolen by external political forces, enemy armies or mercenaries. Hiding treasures is one means of defence. Hiding the true value of precious paintings is a more subtle means of defence. A Leonardo in a private collection is an obvious object to confiscate. A Leonardo hidden by a quick layer of black background seems to the uninitiated eye simply another Madonna and Child.

The first visit to Karlskrona led me to conclude that this third alternative was the most likely explanation for the high quality painting in the collection. Three recommendations were offered: a) to explore various x-ray and infra-red photography techniques; b) dendrochronology and c) to find a conservator, who could examine whether the black background was recent and could readily be removed.

I came to Karlskrona expecting to examine the claim of a possible Leonardo amidst a small collection of paintings and was amazed to discover that this was part of a much larger collection that spanned 5000 years of history. The painting was housed at the time in a provisional Lionardo Da Vinci Ideale Museum, a name that had since been borrowed almost literally by a museum in Vinci. To avoid confusion it was recommended that the Karlskrona Collection, which has paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt, Constable, Fragonard, Matisse and hundreds of objects ranging from Chinese bronzes and celadon ware to Persian vases and plates might more appropriately be renamed The Kulenovic Collection.

Second Visit (6 June 2009)

A few months later I was invited to the opening of the new museum and to my surprise was asked to become a scientific advisor for the collection. Amidst the happy celebrations that coincided with the Swedish National day, Rizah Kulenovic, showed a number of new items and outlined his vision for the future. Initial steps for documenting the collection and improving the website were also discussed.

Third Visit (1 – 5 June, 2010)

In June 2010, a two day visit to the region3 by the Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, provided a context for a third visit. On the evening of 3 June the local governor, Om Gunvor Engström, generously hosted a dinner at her residence. On the morning of 4 June the Minister and Governor visited the museum of the Kulenovic collection.

In addition to these formal encounters, there was an opportunity to discuss progress and plans for future developments. In the course of the past year, the website has been greatly expanded with a considerable number of interesting links. In the collection itself, the major paintings and artifacts now have preliminary labels providing the artist’s name and dates. Additional materials in the form of photocopies have been gathered. Under consideration is a new form of museum which, instead of the typical captions and brief descriptions would have individual display panels for each painting that would serve a) to focus in on images of details and b) show related images of paintings in other collections. In time, these same screens could be linked directly with corresponding screens in other museums, thus introducing a new dimension to the concept of networked museums.

The owner also revealed his plans to complement the newly established museum with a larger underground space of c.1500 square meters that he has already acquired. In the course of the next year, it is planned that an opening for an elevator shaft will be built to join the two spaces. A few items in a local vault were examined. Other treasures, in safekeeping in other vaults, will gradually be moved to Karlskrona and will be shown in the new wing.

The current museum reflects a wonderful treasury of items collected by one of the most important Balkan families in the course of the past nine centuries. Rizah Kulenovic as the head of the family, is custodian to these treasures. He is also an artist, internationally renowned for his remarkable glass paintings. Thus in addition to an expanded museum, the vision for the future includes three other elements: 1) a section devoted to the artist’s own work; 2) a school, where young artists can study the rare art of glass painting and 3) an institute, which will provide scholars a context for studying and providing richer documentation of the museum collections. In the past, the Kulenovich family with its homes in Venice and throughout the Balkans, linked East and West via the age-old Silk Roads. In future, virtual versions of its collection may provide new, electronic silk roads connecting Karlskrona, with Venice, Istanbul, Tehran and even Beijing. Located in Sweden, noted for its political neutrality, the collection can also weave a series of new links between the now separated countries of the former Yugoslavia and Balkan area.




1. Otto Kurz, Fakes: a Handbook for Collectors and Students. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1948.

2. Brueghel Enterprises, ed. Peter van den Brink, with contributions by Dominique Allart, Peter van den Brink, Christina Currie, Rebecca Duckwitz, Pascale Fraiture and Suzanne Harleman [Cat. exh. Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, October 13, 2001 - February 17, 2002; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, March 22 - June 23, 2002]. Amsterdam/Ghent: Ludion, 2001.

3. Visit by Minister of Culture: