NOVA's "Mystery of a Masterpiece" is one of the tensest hours of educational program I've ever witnessed. Mixing equal parts mystery, history lesson and science lesson, the quest to identify whether an innocuous painting of a young woman sold an at auction is actually a lost work of art by Leonardo da Vinci shatters the modern illusion of art critics and historians being stodgy, sticks in the mud. The story begins with art collector Peter Silverman recalling the first time he saw the painting that becomes the focal point of the program and how his bid of $16,000 was beat by a bid of only $3,000 more. Initially the crux of the chase for the painting is Silverman's belief that its identification as being a 19th century work of art is false and that in fact, it's a Renaissance piece; however, years later once Silverman managed to acquire the piece, investigations would reveal a much more interesting possible origin.
Silverman turns to art historian Martin Kemp who not only agrees the painting looks Renaissance-era, but also shockingly reveals the art style features hallmarks of Leonardo himself. With such a bold claim come obvious detractors who rightfully argue for concrete evidence, represented in this story by David Ekserdjian. Ekserdjian's staunch criticism sends Silverman and Kemp across the art world and into a fascinating field of forensic investigation and historical study, utilizing simple techniques such as carbon dating, which the program explains to newcomers quickly and efficiently, before ending up with Pascal Cotte, a French inventor whose one-of-a-kind, multi-million-mega pixel camera has allowed great works of art (including most of Leonardo's known pieces) to be digitally preserved forever. What makes Cotte's camera so interesting is it's ability to look below surface layers revealing original sketch marks. Cotte's contribution is incredibly strong once he discovers a partial fingerprint which allows the program to seek out an expert in that field.
"Mystery of a Masterpiece" never stops, providing far more excitement and enlightenment than one of Dan Brown's poorly crafted attempts at mysterious adventure could ever hope to do. While the scientific inquiry aspect of the program is enough to fill an hour or more, "Mystery of a Masterpiece" seeks out historians to attempt to identify who the woman in the painting was through period clothing. I won't spoil the results but will mention the key players end up in a Polish bank vault searching through a centuries old history book. The ultimate message of "Mystery of a Masterpiece" although never once formally stated is that art and history are far from dull topics. It's a shame NOVA was limited to only an hour on the subject because the breakneck pace is definitely not the standard in educational programming and a little more breathing room might have allowed for more technical explanations.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports solid natural colors; detail is solidly average with minimal issues with compression. I've definitely seen documentaries involving art with more stunning displays of the actual works, but nothing here at least detracts from the beauty of the pieces.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 audio track is well mixed with strong, clear, and clean dominant dialogue.
Engaging, exciting, and enlightening, "Mystery of a Masterpiece" is a real-life fast-paced mystery that speaks to even the most cynical mind when it comes to art, due in large part to it being at the core, a solidly produced educational program that contains so much information, multiple viewings wouldn't be dull. Highly Recommended.