Carmen Bambach started copying Mickey Mouse when she was six years old. When she was 12, she would sit for hours copying a Michelangelo drawing or an El Greco painting with a ballpoint pen. When she was 21 and working on her senior thesis at Yale, she discovered the true subject of a Michelangelo drawing that had been mislabeled. That helped to propel her reputation as an outstanding young woman art historian in a field dominated by men.

Bambach, who is now the curator of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of the world’s leading specialists on Italian Renaissance art, has organized many acclaimed exhibitions, including “Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman” (2003) and “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” (2017). She honed in further on the former with Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, an epochal four-volume study published by Yale University Press last summer to rave reviews. The fruit of 24 years of research in museums, libraries, and archives all over the Western world, it was acclaimed as a “landmark by one of the most thorough scholars on the planet.”

Leonardo is said to have made only 15 paintings or so, if one counts works with interventions by assistants, of which at least four are considered unfinished. The Mona Lisa is one of the most familiar images in the world, and the discovery of the Salvator Mundi, attributed by some scholars to Leonardo, made headlines for months and sold for $450 million in 2017. But according to Bambach, the key to Leonardo’s legacy is found not in these world-famous, hotly contested paintings but rather in his drawings, manuscripts, and notes.

Big Picture

“Drawing, for Leonardo, was a defining act of existence,” Bambach says when we meet in her office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When she set to work researching for what would become her book, Bambach started with his notebooks, which were filled with drawings and texts. The Renaissance master’s texts are difficult to deal with because he was left-handed and wrote backward, from right to left. Before she could translate hundreds of the 4,100 surviving sheets, Bambach had to learn how to read his mirror writing.

Slowly, Bambach got to the point where she felt that she was “getting an intimate glimpse over Leonardo’s shoulder. He has a rhythm in his handwriting. You can easily tell his writing from an imitator’s.” In some ways, the notebooks surprised her. “For all his genius as a draftsman,” she said, “in his early drawings from the 1470s, he often depicted figures with clumsy features and ill-proportioned anatomies. And there are some sheets with bawdy jokes, often with sexual overtones.”

When it came to writing Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, Bambach didn’t want to impose herself between the artist and the reader. “I didn’t want to do what we call a ‘critical transcription,’” she said. “I didn’t correct his spelling. I didn’t normalize it. You can have a block of text or a whole paragraph in which he uses the same word four different times spelled in different ways.”

The four volumes of Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered weigh a total of 30 pounds and contain 2,350 pages, more than one million words, and 1,500 illustrations. The first three volumes cover Leonardo’s youth and early career, his maturity and old age, and his legacy. The fourth volume, 665 pages long, consists entirely of appendices, footnotes, and a 137-page bibliography.

The key to Leonardo’s legacy is not in his paintings but in his drawings, manuscripts, and notes.

But it’s not the last word, Bambach said. “It’s a work in progress that reflects our current state of knowledge and the questions about Leonardo that are of interest today. But our understanding about him continues to evolve, and the questions change. I feel that my book opens the door to further research.” She believes in the archaeological method—“You look at layers and layers of information.”

Drawings and manuscripts are still being discovered. The latest major find was a study of St. Sebastian that an elderly collector in Paris had owned for a long time. When she saw it, Bambach said, “my eyes jumped out of their sockets.”

A fragmentary drawing of Hercules turned up in a Paris collection in 2000 and was purchased by the Metropolitan. An important document in the Milan State Archives, a receipt for the sale of paintings presumably by Leonardo to King Francis I of France, was discovered in 1999. “I’m optimistic that more important material will turn up,” Bambach says. “A substantial body of material is known to have vanished. We know that Leonardo didn’t really paint many paintings, because he was a very slow worker and he spent years and years on a painting. So I don’t think we’ll find 10 more, but 1 or 2? It’s possible.”

Bambach does not agree with the attribution of Salvator Mundi to Leonardo. “Most of the original painting surface is by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a pupil of Leonardo, with some retouches by Leonardo himself,” she says.

Early in her career, Bambach developed a reputation as an outstanding woman art historian in a field dominated by men.

Bambach would be particularly interested in Leonardo’s last will and testament, of which there is only a copy. She would like to have more contracts for his paintings. And, she says, “I think we would all absolutely love to have even a paragraph by Leonardo describing his artistic intention as he painted Lisa Gherardini for the Mona Lisa.” Gherardini was the second wife of Francesco del Giocondo, the Florentine silk merchant who commissioned Leonardo to paint the portrait in 1503, when she was 24 years old. Gherardini was 40 when Leonardo died, in 1519, leaving parts of the painting unfinished.

Bambach calls the portrait “Monna Lisa.” In medieval and Renaissance Italy, she said, “a woman’s baptismal name, preceded by ‘Monna,’ an abbreviation of ‘Madonna,’ was a sign of respect.” Following recent scholarship, Italian art historians and the Louvre have followed suit, now also referring to the painting as “Monna Lisa.”

How accurate a portrait is it? Bambach says that we can’t be certain. She thinks that Leonardo may have started to paint a likeness of the young wife, but the face gradually became idealized as time went on. “I think it would be interesting to have another portrait of Lisa,” she says. “Did she have a short nose, a long nose? Were her eyes really close together? Did she smile a lot or not very much?”

An Artist and a Scholar

One of Bambach’s major achievements was to integrate Leonardo’s manuscripts and his activity as a writer into his larger creative process. She spent a lot of time studying the Codex Atlanticus, in Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a compendium of writings and drawings more than 1,000 pages long on such subjects as geometry and optics. Dropped into Leonardo’s text are sheets with diagrams and drawings by other people. Bambach identified the author of one of these sheets as Leonardo’s friend Fazio Cardano, who translated scientific treatises from Latin, a language Leonardo didn’t understand, into Italian. Leonardo wanted to write about arcane subjects such as cosmology and flying, and Cardano’s translations gave him access to the experts.

“Leonardo was educating himself,” Bambach says. “At the very beginning, he was very awkward, really naïve. It took him about 20 years to arrive at the stature of the artist that we consider a universal genius.” That process fascinated her. “This man had incredible patience; he came back to the same questions over and over and over again throughout his life,” she says. “I wanted to show basically the sweat and 99 percent of perspiration that supports his genius.”

Bambach had another goal, which she describes as humanizing Leonardo. “I hope I have given him flesh and bones as a genius and a thinker, as opposed to this mythical individual who was completely elusive because we put him on a pedestal. It’s not that I’m knocking him off the pedestal. I’m showing a process that is very intimate. We see him growing up. It’s very moving to see this genius as a human being.”

“Drawing, for Leonardo, was a defining act of existence.”

Bambach acknowledges the “heroic and daunting” contributions of the Leonardo scholars who went before her. Without them, her book couldn’t have been written, she says. But the field of Leonardo studies is male-dominated, and she always felt that she had to work much harder than her male colleagues. “In writing my four volumes on Leonardo, I was very much under the radar because I knew there would be a lot of pushback in the sense of very aggressive responses,” she says. “There have been a number of situations where I have been silenced in public by some very famous male art historians. It’s been my experience that only the male art historians shut down other people in discussions, particularly the women.”

“Women still get passed over in favor of men who are less qualified. They have fewer opportunities to get leadership positions. The situation has improved quite a bit, but it’s just halfway to where it should be.”

Bambach dedicated Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered to her late husband, Ronald E. Street, who died in 2016. He was a sculptor and the manager of 3D Imaging and Modeling at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he worked for more than 30 years.

In Her Bones

Bambach was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1959. Both of her parents—her father is an engineer—encouraged her early interest in art. For a while, she thought she would be an artist and took courses in studio art in school. In 1973, Augusto Pinochet toppled the government of Salvador Allende in a bloody military coup. “It was a very violent time, very scary,” Bambach said. “We lived right next to the Mexican Embassy. There were people fleeing who jumped into our garden, and we would help them climb into the embassy.”

Soon after the coup, her parents took the family—Bambach and her brother and sister—to the United States, where they settled in Greenwich, Connecticut. “I spoke Spanish and German but no English,” she says. “I had an accent, and I was pretty much an ugly duckling. So I just studied. I studied like crazy and learned English.” When she was 17 and applying to college, “I thought I would be an architect because I didn’t think I had the talent to be an artist,” Bambach says. At Yale, she double-majored in architecture and art history. “But in graduate school, I decided I wasn’t creative enough to be an architect.”

When she was 12, Bambach would sit for hours copying a Michelangelo drawing with a ballpoint pen.

In 1981, while Bambach was working on her senior thesis on the Sistine Chapel, she came upon an illustration in a book on Michelangelo that was described as a drawing of an armpit. She recalled, “I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ It looked like it was printed upside down. So I turned the book around and I saw that it looked like the foreshortened head of Haman, who is depicted in the Sistine Chapel.”

Bambach took the book to three of her mentors—Judith Colton, the late Creighton Gilbert, and the late George Hersey, who were impressed by her discovery, and she published an article about the drawing in 1983, in The Art Bulletin.

The Sistine Chapel was being cleaned at the time, and it wasn’t until 1990 that Bambach climbed up a rickety metal ladder almost six stories high with Fabrizio Mancinelli, the director in charge of the restoration, to see the Haman up close. Once up there, Bambach placed a transparency of the drawing against the head of Haman and it fit perfectly.

Starting in 1988, Bambach interned for nearly two years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and then taught at Fordham University for six years, on everything from cave paintings to Jackson Pollock. She joined the Metropolitan in 1995 as associate curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints and was promoted to curator in 2001. She’s already planning her next project, another book about Leonardo, which will consider him from a very different point of view. Would she elaborate? She smiles and says, “It will be a short book.”

I ask her how she would sum up the extraordinary man she has studied for four decades. “He was friendly,” she said, “very sociable. People must have been drawn to him. This was an unfettered man who didn’t try to conform to any of the strictures of his society. He traveled widely; in fact, he was constantly on a journey, whether it was an intellectual or a physical journey or the journey of creating a painting. For Leonardo, the process is everything, the journey is everything. At the end of his life, he probably would have said, ‘I’m only beginning to understand.’”

Milton Esterow was the editor and publisher of ARTnews from 1972 to 2014 and currently contributes to The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic