Artwatch UK

Posts tagged “Carmen Bambach

The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga: Three Developments

“The more I read it, the more it looks probable.”

Above, Salvator Mundi, the painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and sold at auction in 2017 for $450 million. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images – as published on 2 April 2018 in Buffalo News

The sensational Mail Online story (“EXCLUSIVE: The world’s most expensive painting cost $450 MILLION because two Arab princes bid against each other by mistake and wouldn’t back down (but settled by swapping it for a yacht”) discussed here in this News & Notices post, has been questioned or disparaged by a number of commentators but not directly challenged by Christie’s, so far as we know. On March 30 Bendor Grosvenor wrote (“Who underbid the Salvator Mundi?):

“I’m sceptical about this version of events. First, the source seems determined to prove mainly that the picture is somehow ‘not worth’ what it made – the figure of $80m is mentioned – when there were other underbidders up to the $200m level. Second, I’ve been told that the underbidder to $400m was not from the Middle East, from a source who would know.”

Had Grosvenor’s source been correct and the Mail’s story, thus, been seriously misleading, one would expect Christie’s’ lawyers to have demanded either changes to the online article or its removal. Grosvenor’s seeming partisanship on the Salvator Mundi case takes two forms. As well as knocking the knockers, he hypes his brother-auctioneers’ hype, as, on November 12 2017 (“Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ to be sold at Christie’s”):

“I love this video of people seeing Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi. Christie’s say 20,000 have been to see the painting on its world tour. I’ve been impressed by how Christie’s have marketed the picture – in fact, I’d say that they’ve taken marketing Old Masters to a whole new level. A well deserved AHN pat on the back to all involved. The sale is on Wednesday 15th November. Anyone care to make a prediction?”

On November 16, the day after the $450m sale, Grosvenor was ecstatically supportive (“’Salvator Mundi’ – the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction”):

“Christie’s just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off. They marketed the picture brilliantly – the best piece of art marketing I’ve ever seen. Above all, they had absolute faith in the picture. AHN congratulates them all.”

Pace Grosvenor and his sources, questions on Christie’s marketing of the Salvator Mundi persist. The whispering campaign against the Mail’s disclosures has not worked. In this weekend’s Financial Times the author Melanie Gerlis closed her art market column with the item below:

As things stand, no one has disproved the Mail’s suggestion that the (disputed) Leonardo Salvator Mundi has been swapped for a luxury yacht. In her book Art as Investment, Gerlis noted that because the “worth and price are known to only a few” in an art market that is underpinned by a lack of “verifiable and meaningful data”, those looking to art purely as a secure investment “might first consider looking elsewhere.”

With the Salvator Mundi, some 13 years after its emergence, we still do not know when, where and by whom the painting was bought. There have been many conflicting accounts on the work’s ownership (see below). In the April 6 Antiques and Arts Weekly, the New York dealer Dr Robert Simon was asked: “Can you say where you found Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’?” He replied:

“Alex and I acquired the painting at an estate auction in the United States, but we’ve never divulged the location of the auction. We were not permitted to, according to the terms of the confidentiality agreement we signed at the time we sold the painting.”

The sale was conducted privately in 2013 through Sotheby’s when it was acquired by the “Freeport King”, Yves Bouvier, who was acting as an agent for the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. Did Sotheby’s insist that the origin of the picture not be disclosed? Or Bouvier? Whomever – the enforced confidentiality clause was made eight years after the claimed discovery/acquisition in 2005. However constricting the terms of the 2013 sale agreement might have been, they could hardly account for the non-disclosure of the owners’ identities for the previous eight years – including the time the picture spent in the National Gallery. When the Salvator Mundi was about to enter the Gallery’s big Leonardo show in 2011 as an autograph Leonardo, the Sunday Times reported:

“Its ownership is a closely guarded secret. Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, is representing the owner, or owners – the official line is it is a ‘consortium’.”

Why, then, did the National Gallery agree to participate in this secrecy on the ownership of a painting whose (contested) Leonardo ascription had been supported by the gallery’s own director; by one of its curators; and, by one of its trustees?

Another of the scholar-supporters of this upgraded Leonardo is Professor Martin Kemp. In 2011 Kemp told the Sunday Times how he had been invited to view the work by the National Gallery (“there’s something it’s worth you coming in to look at”, was how Kemp put it). Kemp described entering the National Gallery’s conservation studios and joining “a little group of people, including some Leonardo scholars from Italy and America, and Robert Simon.” Robert Simon had been accompanied on that trip by the Salvator Mundi’s restorer, Dianne Dwyer Modestini. In 2012 Modestini would deliver a paper on the picture’s (then) two restoration campaigns at a conference held in the National Gallery.


On April 6 Buffalo News reported that Dianne Modestini was to speak on April 9 in the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State and was about to make two new claims.

First, that she and her late husband, the restorer Mario Modestini, had entertained no doubts that this was an autograph Leonardo painting: “We were completely convinced and we felt that we could justify this to anyone without sounding like idiots.” This goes further than Modestini’s 2012 paper: “…when I first saw it I never imagined what would transpire with this lovely but damaged painting on panel…I wasn’t aware of a lost, much-copied Salvator Mundi by Leonardo and I was perplexed. I showed the painting to my then 98 year old husband, Mario…He looked at it for a long time and said, ‘It is by a very great artist, a generation after Leonardo’.”

Second, that no technical evidence had emerged to confirm authorship by Leonardo. Modestini reportedly said that what made her so sure was not “the discovery of any single clue attributable to the master’s style or any technical element of the painting that could be traced to his hand, but rather the quality of the painting”. There was “no under-drawing for example, that was Leonardo’s drawing style, or anything like that. The pigments are the pigments that any one of his contemporaries could have used, and did.” This attribution was entirely a matter of judgment: “the quality of the painting, the sort of old-fashioned connoisseurship and skills, which art historians have always used to make an attribution, were in the end the telling factor for us.”

Those present at her lecture might have learnt why a painting that had so soon revealed itself as an autograph Leonardo to two experienced restorers and in which “apart from the discrete losses, the flesh tones of the face retain their entire structure, including the final scumbles and glazes” had needed a third campaign of restoration with substantial repainting of the face, some time between 2016 (when the Qataris reportedly turned down a private offer of the painting for $80m) and the spectacular $450m sale at Christie’s on 15 November 2017 amidst modern works, not old masters.


Above: left, Peter Silverman, the owner of the drawing “La Bella Principessa”; right, Professor Martin Kemp, author of the 2010 book “La Bella Principessa” – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: as published in Martin Kemp’s Living With Leonardo

Professor Martin Kemp has published a new book (Living with Leonardo – Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond) in which he pays a back-handed compliment to ArtWatch in his second chapter: “Theirs has been the most sustained and fully researched of the hostile polemics”. Elsewhere he launches a series of slurs against three named ArtWatch UK contributors and officers in defence of his own support for two recently attributed Leonardos, the Salvator Mundi painting, and the mixed media drawing on vellum glued onto oak, that he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. The slurs will be refuted, but we note here that Kemp has now provided a fuller, and apparently verbatim, account of the National Gallery’s invitation to him to view the Salvator Mundi:

“On 5 March 2008, my birthday, an email arrived, announcing the appearance of a new Leonardo – a painting rather than a drawing […It] came from a well known source: Nicholas Penny, then director of the National Gallery in London.

“I would like to invite you to examine a damaged old painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi which is in private hands in New York. Now it has been cleaned, Luke Syson and I, together with our colleagues in both paintings and drawings in the Met, are convinced that it is Leonardo’s original version, although some of us consider that there may be [parts? – Kemp’s parenthesis] which are by the workshop. We hope to have the painting in the National Gallery sometime later in March or in April so that it can be examined next to our version of the Virgin of the Rocks. The best preserved passages in the Salvator Mundi panel are very similar to parts of the latter painting. Would you be free to come to London at any time in this period? We are only inviting two or three scholars.”

The following observations on that stage of the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo accreditation might be made:

1) The method of inviting successive select groups of scholars to see and appraise the painting in the prior knowledge of others’ support for the new attribution might be thought to have fallen short of the National Gallery’s own practices. When Nicholas Penny, as a curator at the National Gallery, proposed the Northumberland version of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks as the original painted prototype of the very many versions, he first published a thorough and well-received scholarly article in the Burlington Magazine, and later invited a group of some thirty Raphael scholars to discuss the matter during a day-long symposium at the National Gallery.

2) With this Salvator Mundi upgrade, none of the fifteen or so invited experts has published a case for the attribution. Robert Simon has yet to publish the researches to which both Modestini’s restoration report and Luke Syson’s exhibition catalogue entry were indebted. It is not clear whether Modestini was present when the painting was examined at the National Gallery. Kemp writes in his new book:

“No one in this assembly was openly expressing doubt that Leonardo was responsible for the painting, although the possibility of participation by an assistant or two was generally acknowledged. I sensed that Carmen [Bambach, of the Metropolitan Museum drawings] was the most reserved about the painting’s overall quality. A general discussion followed. Robert Simon, the custodian of the picture (whom I later learnt was its co-owner), outlined something of its history and its restoration. He seemed sincere, straightforward and judiciously restrained, as proved to be the case in all our subsequent contacts…”

Carmen Bambach rejected the Leonardo attribution in a 2012 Apollo review of the National Gallery exhibition and gave the painting to Leonardo’s student Boltraffio. Ironically, the Times reported on 9 April 2017 that Kemp has now demoted the Hermitage Museum’s Litta Madonna (which was included as a Leonardo in the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition) from Leonardo to Boltraffio.

3) After seeing the Salvator Mundi next to the National Gallery’s version of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (which is to say, its second version), Dianne Modestini was inspired to change the appearance of the former:

“There were actually two stages of the current restoration. In 2008 when it went to London to be studied by several Leonardo experts, there was less retouching. I hadn’t replaced the glazes on the orb, finished the eyes, suppressed the pentimenti on the thumb and stole, and several other small details but, chiefly, the painting still had the mud-coloured modern background that was close in tone to the hair. Two years later I was troubled by the way the background encroached upon the head, trapping it in the same plane as the background. Having seen the richness of the well-preserved browns and blacks in the London Virgin of the Rocks and based on fragments of the black background which had not been covered up by the repainting, I suggested to the owners that it might be worthwhile to try to recover the original background and finish the complete restoration.”

Thus, Modestini had intervened radically on the painting shortly before it was included in the National Gallery’s major 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition and two years after it was appraised by selected Leonardo scholars at the National Gallery.

4) Restoration campaigns, like wars, are easy to start. In 2012 Modestini acknowledged an ambition to finish a “complete restoration”, after seeing the National Gallery’s restored Virgin of the Rocks. Permission, she recalled, was granted to strip and repaint the entire background:

“The initial cleaning [i. e. paint and varnish removal] was promising especially where the verdigris had preserved the original layers. Unfortunately, in the upper parts of the background, the paint had been scraped down to the ground and in some cases the wood itself. Whether or not I would have begun had I known, is a moot point. Since the putty and overpaint were quite thick I had no choice but to remove them completely. I repainted the large missing areas in the upper part of the painting with ivory black and a little cadmium light red, followed by a glaze of rich warm brown, then more black and vermilion. Between stages I distressed and then retouched the new paint to make it look antique. The new colour then freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image.”

5) “Restorations”, which might more accurately be described as “stripped and painted re-presentations commissioned by owners”, are rarely straightforward and unproblematic. Modestini made her decisions in the sincere belief that the London Virgin of the Rocks is an entirely autograph Leonardo painting and therefore a reliable guide to her own interventions on the Salvator Mundi. However, that Leonardo attribution has only been widely thought to be the case since the painting’s recent restoration. Kenneth Clark, when director of the National Gallery thought otherwise. In 1944 he said of the head of the picture’s angel: “This is one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair. The curls around the shoulder have exactly the same movement as Leonardo’s drawings of swirling water. Beautiful as it is, this angel lacks the enchantment of the lighter, more Gothic angel in the Paris version…” Of the head of the Virgin, Clark wrote:

“…It is uncertain how much of this replica [of the first, Louvre, Virgin of the Rocks] he [Leonardo] executed with his own hand, and this head of the Virgin is the most difficult part of the problem. It is too heavy and lifeless for Leonardo and the actual type is un-Leonardesque; yet it is painted in exactly the same technique as the angel’s head in the same picture; and that is so perfect that Leonardo must surely have had a hand in it. Both show curious marks of palm and thumb…made when the paint was wet, and no doubt covered by glazes long since removed. This perhaps is a clue to the problem. A pupil did the main work of drawing and modelling, and before the paint was dry Leonardo put in the finishing touches. Most of these have been removed from the Virgin’s face but remain in the angel’s, where perhaps they were always more numerous.”

Above, top: The head of the Virgin in the National Gallery’s (second) version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, as published in 1944 in Kenneth Clark’s One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery. Above, the Head of the Virgin as published in the 1990 re-issue of Clark’s “Details” book and, therefore, after its post-war restoration by Helmut Ruhemann but before its more recent re-restoration by Larry Keith (in which the mouth of the Angel was altered, on Luke Syson’s advice, as discussed here in “Something Not Quite Right About Leonardo’s Mouth ~ The Rise and Rise of Cosmetically Altered Art”).

Above, the face in the accredited Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi, as exhibited, left, in the National Gallery in 2011-12, and, right, as when sold at Christie’s in November 2017.

In 1990 the National Gallery remarked that “as a result of” the picture’s 1949 restoration “the differences between the heads are perhaps less apparent”. That being so, either one face had received new glazing or the other had lost original glazing. For Kemp, a crucial technical proof of Leonardo’s authorship of the Salvator Mundi is the fact that technical examinations had disclosed that “As is generally the case with Leonardo, infrared rays delivered the most striking results. It was good to be able to see that the artist had pressed his hand in to the tacky paint above Christ’s left eye – which we have seen to be characteristic of Leonardo’s technique.”


In his seventh chapter (“The Saviour”) Kemp twice discusses the ownership of the Salvator Mundi. He does so first with regard to the exclusion from the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition of the “La Bella Principessa” drawing (– whose Leonardo ascription he has energetically advocated):

“This episode highlighted the rationale for the inclusion of the Salvator Mundi. Was it on the market? Would exhibiting it mean that the National Gallery was tacitly involved in a huge act of commercial promotion? It seemed highly likely that it was also ‘in the trade’ [like the ‘La Bella Principessa’]. All I knew at this stage [2011] was that it was being represented by Robert Simon. He told me that it was in the hands of a ‘good owner’ who intended to do the right thing by it, and I did not inquire any further.”

So, it would seem that the National Gallery had not disclosed the identity of the owner/owners to the scholars it invited to appraise the painting. Kemp continued:

“I was keen to consider the painting in its own right, not in relation to its ownership. I speculated, of course, that Robert might have a financial interest, perhaps a share in its ownership; and I assumed that he was gaining some kind of legitimate income from his work on the picture’s behalf. But the gallery was assured that the work was not on the market. Understandably keen to exhibit it, they were happy to accept this assurance…Might the Salvator have been less well regarded if its messy sale [in 2013, privately through Sotheby’s] to Bouvier [for $80m – $68m in cash and a Picasso valued at $12m, according to Georgina Adam in her “Dark Side of the Boom” book] and its resale [to Dimitry Rybolovlev for $127.5m] had been apparent before its public debut [at the National Gallery in 2011-12]? It has turned out to be a substantial mess. In November 2016, an article in The New York Times reported the latest developments: three ‘art traders’ (Robert Simon, Warren Adelson and Alexander Parrish) were disconcerted to find that painting was ‘flipped’ by Bouvier for $47.5m more than their selling price. Was Sotheby’s a knowing party to the the resale? The auction house claimed that it was not, taking pre-emptive legal action to block any law suit by the ‘traders’….It was however a great surprise to find that the Salvator was to be sold at Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 at a mega-auction of celebrity works from the modern era. The auctioneers sent the painting on a glamorous marketing tour of Hong Kong, San Francisco and London. I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.”

Where would we be without a free and vigilant press? Where, precisely, is the $450m Salvator Mundi today?

Michael Daley, 10 April 2018

Problems with “La Bella Principessa” – Part III: Dr. Pisarek responds to Prof. Kemp

In June 2015 Kasia Pisarek, an independent scholar (and a member of ArtWatch UK) published an article, “La Bella Principessa – Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo”, in the Polish scholarly journal Artibus et Historiae.

In her article Dr Pisarek presented a number of interlocking historical, aesthetic and technical criticisms of the attribution to Leonardo of the drawing “La Bella Principessa”, as it has been made and advanced by Professor Martin Kemp. In response, Prof. Kemp produced an article (“Leonardo da Vinci La Bella Principessa: Errors, Misconceptions, and Allegations of Forgery”) which challenges Dr Pisarek’s account on grounds of what he claims and alleges to be: “mistakes, misconceptions and a series of false allegations”.


In his response Kemp says “I do not run an authentication service, but research items of special interest regardless of ownership.” More recently ( May 16) Kemp announced on his website that “After speaking at the Art in Authentication Congress in The Hague, I confirm that I am withdrawing the [unpaid – Ed.] ‘advice service’ I have been providing.”


Kemp discloses that in responding to Pisarek’s article he also sought by “extension” to counter other un-identified challenges to his Leonardo attribution. When this multi-targeted professional defence was submitted to Artibus et Historiae, it was rejected, as Kemp acknowledges, and as the Art Newspaper reports (“La Bella Principessa: Still an Enigma”, Features, May 2016), because of its resemblance to “an errata list”. The article was subsequently carried on the Authentication in Art website to accompany a paper given by Kemp at the AiA’s May 2016 Congress. This non-profit organisation, on which Kemp serves as an advisor, was founded in 2012 at The Hague. On May 8th we made a formal request to the AiA for Kasia Pisarek’s Artibus et Historiae article also to be posted so that the congress speakers and attendees might see both of what Dr Pisarek’s compilation of evidence consisted and of what Prof. Kemp complained. We have yet to receive a reply. For Kasia Pisarek’s Artibus et Historiae article, “La Bella Principessa – Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo” click here. For Martin Kemp’s response to it, see: “Leonardo da Vinci La Bella Principessa: Errors, Misconceptions, and Allegations of Forgery”.


In December 2015 Kasia Pisarek delivered a paper based on her Artibus essay at the ArtWatch UK/LSE Law Department/Center for Art Law conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”. At this conference, an arts journalist, Simon Hewitt, delivered an attack from the floor on her article. He did so as a proxy for Kemp, by whom he had been briefed, and for the collector/dealer owner of “La Bella Principessa”, Peter Silverman, with whom he is co-writing a book on what Silverman describes to us as “various aspects of the art market, sometimes highlighted by others’ and my own discoveries”. A research assistant of Kemp’s, Kasia Wozniak, who had spent four years attempting to show that “La Bella Principessa” had once been part of a late 15th century book known as the Warsaw Sforziad, had also written to us in denigration of Pisarek’s article which we had forwarded to her at her request.

Earlier, both Professor Kemp, who had declined an invitation to speak at this conference, and Mr Silverman, had suggested that we invite Hewitt to speak at the conference. Silverman expressly requested that this be done so that Hewitt might “present his discoveries as a counterweight to Ms. Pisarek”. We carry Pisarek’s full reply to Kemp’s listed objections below but comment first on a crucial new aspect of this disputed attribution that has emerged in Kemp’s response to Pisarek.


Above, Fig. 1: A facsimile of the “La Bella Principessa” drawing being inserted into the Warsaw Sforziad (but showing only the relationship of the top of the facsimile to the top of the book and not the accompanying relationship of the facsimile and book at the bottom). Photo by courtesy of Lumiere Technology.

For many reasons, it is essential to Prof. Kemp’s Leonardo ascription that it be accepted that “La Bella Principessa” had originally been incorporated within the Warsaw Sforziad now held in the National Library, Poland. It has not been so accepted because, contrary to press releases claims and media coverage thereafter, nothing material or documentary has established such a relationship. No record of any connection between the drawing and the book has been found despite extensive searches by researchers such as Kasia Wozniak. Moreover, despite extensive searches of Berenson’s archives by Kemp and Silverman, no record of the supposed 15th century drawing in any context predates its only-recently acknowledged ownership by the late painter/restorer Giannino Marchig. This pictorially and graphically mongrel work remains without a history and, prior to September 2011, without any claim – even by its only known previous owner – that it might have been a work by Leonardo da Vinci.

Martin Kemp has challenged Kasia Pisarek’s measurements between the stitches in the book’s binding. He and Pascal Cotte (of Lumiere Technology) claim that three stitch holes are present on the left hand edge of the “La Bella Principessa” sheet and that these match three of the book’s five stitches. No confirming visual evidence has been produced in support of this claim. In addition to fresh evidence on dimensions provided below by Pisarek, it might be noted that the Kemp/Cotte claims of a match have been variously and only rarely unequivocally phrased. All emphases below are added:

The stitch holes in the vellum of the portrait match those in the book – “The Original Source of the New Leonardo Portrait Discovered”, a Martin Kemp press release, 27 September 2011.

“Three of the stitch marks, the ones that we can still see on the edge of the ‘Bella Principessa’, match as well as they conceivably could – Martin Kemp, Artinfo interview, “The Da Vinci Detective: Art Historian Martin Kemp on Rediscovering Leonardo’s Tragic Portrait of a Renaissance Princess”, by Andrew M. Goldstein, 11 October 2011;

“During our studies at the National Library, we inserted a facsimile of the portrait into the relevant opening of the book where the size matched very closely – Martin Kemp, item 14, “Leonardo da Vinci La Bella Principessa: Errors, Misconceptions, and Allegations of Forgery”, on the Authentication in Art website. See Fig.1, above;

“The current stitching of the volume involves five holes, whereas there are only three holes now visible along the left margin of the ‘La Bella Principessa’. However, these three holes correspond very closely to the corresponding ones in the book.” – Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte, “La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad”, Lumiere Technology website, September 2011.


With linear measurements a near-miss is as good as a mile. If a hole is two millimetres adrift of a stitch there is no match. Claiming “correspondences” and “close” matches between the three holes and the five stitches is problematic enough, but, as Kasia Pisarek has now re-confirmed, the three holes in the “La Bella Principessa” drawing do not correspond with three of the book’s five stitches. Moreover, Kemp’s imprecision came with a perplexing multiple caveat: “In measuring the distances between the holes and matching these distances in the book and the portrait we allowed for four potential sources of error” – Kemp/Cotte, item 13, “La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad”, Lumiere Technology website.

If incorporating an allowance for one potential source of error would necessarily be weakening to the force of a claimed match, how might allowances have been made for four different sources of error? How were the different “potentials-for-error” calibrated and weighted one against the three others? With accounts of this attribution, too many features remain in flux. For example, explanations offered for the disparity between the drawing’s three stitch holes and the book’s five stitches have shifted. In 2011 Kemp/Cotte wrote:

“The second task was to see if the holes in the portrait and the stitching pattern in the book corresponds. There is an obvious difference. The current stitching of the volume involves five holes, whereas there are only three holes now visible along the left margin of “La Bella Principessa”. However, these three holes correspond very closely to the corresponding ones in the book…The different number of stitching holes may result from the untidy way the left margin of the portrait has been cut, or from two intermediate stitches being added when the book was later rebound in standard Zamoysky livery. The former explanation is more likely.” (Emphases added.)

The suggestion that the book might possibly have been bound originally with only three stitches seems to have been abandoned altogether. Martin Kemp now accepts in his response to Kasia Pisarek that the book always had five stitches but claims as a countering fact against this recognition that: “The irregularity and extensive damage along the left margin explains why two of the five stitch holes are no longer clearly discernible.”


The posited stitch holes cannot be said to be “no longer discernible” because there is no evidence that they were ever present. Prof. Kemp here begs a question on which this attribution turns. The roughly cut edge cannot be taken to have explained these absences. What Kemp offers, in truth, is (an implausible) hypothesis that ignores the technical exigencies of book binding and the dimensional realities of the “La Bella Principessa” sheet. When books are being made, the stitches are inserted along the line of a fold made collectively to the small number of sheets that form one of the book’s sections or “quires”. In the case of the Warsaw Sforziad, Pascal Cotte established (by taking and combining 70 precisely-focussed macro-photographs) that each quire was composed of four sheets (folios) which, when folded and stitched, comprised sixteen numbered pages. The book binder’s craft requires that the stitching occurs precisely along the crease line of the folded sheets. This careful alignment is necessary if the pages are not to cockle and for the book to open easily.

The three holes on “La Bella Principessa” have been taken to relate (- more or less, but never exactly) to the book’s central and two outer stitches. Had the “La Bella Principessa” sheet been incorporated in the Warsaw Sforziad when it was made in the late 1490s, the two inner stitch holes would be expected to be present on the sheet, even as it is today, and notwithstanding its roughly cut left-hand edge.

At Fig. 2 below, we see the white arrows and circles with which Pascal Cotte identified what are said to be “La Bella Principessa’s” three stitch holes. On the image on the left, we have drawn in red the alignment of the present three holes and have indicated with arrows where the two hypothesized additional stitching holes would be expected to be located. Both holes would fall within the present sheet despite its roughly cut left-hand edge. In the image on the right of Fig. 2 we again indicate (in black) the alignment of the present three holes, but show in red how the alignment would be disrupted had the two hypothesized additional stitch holes been situated to the left of the present sheet, as Prof. Kemp now claims in “explanation” for their absence from the sheet itself. Such a positioning would have resulted in a zigzag, not a row, of stitch holes. It is impossible to envisage how four sheets of vellum might have been folded so as to produce a neatly zigzagging crease.

Aside from the above problem, any lingering hope that this “La Bella Principessa” sheet might once have formed part of the Warsaw Sforziad will have to be abandoned in the light of Kasia Pisarek’s latest findings described below on her second examination of the Warsaw Sforziad.

Above, Figs. 2 and 3. In Fig. 2 (top) we see, in the left and right images, the white arrows and circles with which Pascal Cotte located the “three holes showing that the image was once part of a codex or manuscript”. Given that the book (the Warsaw Sforziad) from which this sheet is said to have been cut was originally bound with five stitches, had the “La Bella Principessa” sheet once formed part of that book, it would today have five stitch holes, not the present three. In Figs. 2 and 3, we indicate with arrows (in red and then in black) where the missing two stitch holes would, for the reasons given above, be expected to have been located.


When Andrew Goldstein asked Martin Kemp in an Artinfo interview in October 2011 what, on seeing the drawing, had convinced him it might be a Leonardo, he replied:

“So the initial connoisseur’s reaction merely tells you that something is worth looking at, but at any point one wrong thing can throw that all away — a later pigment, a bit of something that might come up about its history to indicate it was forged at some point, and so on. I was trained as a scientist, and if you have a scientific theory, you only need have one bit of the experiment that says, ‘this is not right,’ and the whole thing collapses. You always have to be looking for that one thing that is going to demolish the whole expectation that’s being set up.”

Kemp has given other grounds for caution when making attributions. On first encountering “La Bella Principessa”, he told Silverman, “I immediately saw it was in a different league from the others. But I was still very, very cautious. I didn’t want to jump at it because once you start believing you can summon up all the evidence you need.” (Peter Silverman, Leonardo’s Lost Princess: One Man’s Quest to Authenticate an Unknown Portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, 2012, p. 74.) Kemp had become a believer in the Leonardo attribution by 28 September 2011 when he issued a press release “The Original Source of the New Leonardo Portrait Discovered”. He added, “This (press release attached without the pics) should more or less settle the arguments – though probably not knowing the myopia of the art world.”

In 2011, after Kemp and Cotte had inserted their facsimile “La Bella Principessa” into the book, Kemp expressed himself 80 per cent confident of the drawing’s Leonardo attribution in a National Geographic film of the occasion. However, this was not the first time that a claimed “fit” between the facsimile and the book had been made and filmed by National Geographic. Peter Silverman describes in his book how, in December 2010, he had established a match in a different part of the book:

“We began by measuring the page size to see if it corresponded to “La Bella Principessa” and were gratified to see that it did, within a millimeter or two (a minute fraction of an inch)… Martin [Kemp] had surmised that the drawing would have been placed either at the very beginning or the very end of the book, but after careful examination we could find no trace of a cut page in either place. ‘May we turn each page?’ I asked. It was not a simple request. The book was nearly two hundred pages, and it would be a bit laborious for her [Anna Zawisza, the head of manuscripts] since utmost care had to be used so as not to damage the precious work in any way…It was apparent that the three pinholes where the binding had been sewn, noted earlier by Martin, which we had hoped would be a key to matching, would not be relevant, since the book had been rebound using five sutures…We slowly continued to turn each page, but there was no sign of a missing page…I had begun to abandon hope and to mentally prepare myself to return empty-handed. But then Zawisza turned page 161. There was a momentary beat of silence, and then she and I let out muffled cries. There, before our incredulous eyes, was what seemed to be the missing link, the element we longed to find: a remnant of a cut and extracted page of vellum that was the same darkish yellow as “La Bella Principessa”. We could barely contain our emotions. We measured the undulation of the remnant, and it corresponded exactly. Kathy [Silverman’s wife] and Kasia [Wozniak, art historian] came round to see for themselves, while David [Murdoch, National Geographic producer] filmed the historic moment. Even the armed guard was caught up in the excitement. Zawisza, who had carefully studied the book on past occasions, murmured how unhappy she was that she’d never noticed the missing page, now so glaringly obvious from the protruding remnant…”

That filmed historic moment was eclipsed by the moment in which Kemp and Cotte discovered a (preferred) location for the drawing at the front of the book. On her second examination of the Warsaw Sforziad, Dr Pisarek has learned that each of the five stitches in the book’s binding resulted in two holes, through which a string was passed. Thus, now that it is accepted that the book was originally bound with five stitches, each of which generated two holes, and that the “La Bella Principessa” sheet possesses only three of the necessary ten holes – and three where there should be six – there is no physical match between the drawing and the book, just as there is no documentary record of a Leonardo drawing having been bound within the book. Those who continue to see the hand of Leonardo in the drawing itself must now find an alternative history and another princess to accompany and bolster it.

Michael Daley 24 May 2016

Kasia Pisarek: A reply to Martin Kemp’s essay “Leonardo da Vinci La Bella Principessa. Errors, Misconceptions and Allegations of Forgery”

Professor Kemp has written an essay in response to my article “La Bella Principessa; Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo”, Artibus et Historiae, No. 71, XXXVI, June 2015, pp. 61– 89.

In his essay, Prof. Kemp lists what he deems a series of errors and misconceptions in the Artibus article, but says he does not wish to address the issues of attribution I raised.

The purpose of his article is, however, an attempt to counter or undermine my findings.

I will answer his points in the order and with the numbered headings used by Kemp in his text.

[Martin Kemp] “1) Bibliographical”

[Kasia Pisarek] Martin Kemp says that most of my material is quoted from the internet and that I make only one reference to his book in my footnote 50.

This is incorrect. I make extensive reference to his book on the opening page and further references in footnotes 54, 57, 59 and 64. I have examined it as thoroughly as would be expected of any researcher. I also referred to many other books and articles which were accessed from libraries and not from the internet. These were:

M. Kemp and P. Cotte, The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci: La Bella Principessa, London, 2010; M. Kemp, Leonardo (rev. ed.), Oxford, 2004; P. Silverman, Leonardo’s Lost Princess: One Man’s Quest to Authenticate an Unknown Portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci, New Jersey, 2012; C. Geddo, ‘A “Pastel” by Leonardo da Vinci: His Newly Discovered Portrait of a Young Woman in Profile’, Artes, 2008–2009, pp. 67–87; C. C. Bambach, ‘Leonardo’s Notes on Pastel Drawing’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, vol. 52, 2008, no. 2/3 (Le tecniche del disegno rinascimentale: dai materiali allo stile. Atti del convegno internazionale, Firenze, 22–23 settembre 2008, ed. By M. Faietti, L. Melli, A. Nova), pp. 177–204; M. Gregori, ‘A Note on Leonardo’, Paragone, LXI, 2009, no. 723, pp. 3–4; D. Ekserdjian, ‘Leonardo da Vinci: “La Bella Principessa” – The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman’ (book review), Burlington Magazine, vol. 152, 2010, no. 1287, June (Attributions, copies, fakes), pp. 420–421; P. C. Marani, ‘Deux nouveaux Léonard?’, Dossier de l’art, 2012, no. 195, avril, pp. 58–63. Giannino Marchig, 1897–1983: paintings and drawings, exh. cat. London, 1988; Giannino Marchig, 1897–1983, exh. cat., Geneva, 1985; Giannino Marchig: 1897–1983: dipinti, disegni, incisioni, exh. cat. Florence, Gabinetto disegni e stampe degli Uffizi, 12 March – 5 June 1994 (Italian ed.); J. Cartwright (Mrs Henry Ady), Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan, 1475–1497. A Study of the Renaissance, London, 1910; B. Horodyski, ‘Miniaturzysta Sforzów’, Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, 16, 1954, pp. 195–213; E. McGrath, ‘Ludovico il Moro and His Moors’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 65, 2002, pp. 67–94; L. Syson with L. Keith, Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan, exh. cat. National Gallery, London, 2011; Dizionario delle origini, invenzioni e scoperte nelle arti, nelle scienze…, Milan, 1831; B. Berenson, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, vol. III, Chicago, 1938; Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman, ed. by C. C. Bambach, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003; Z. Zygulski Jr, ‘Ze studiów nad Dama z gronostajem. Styl ubioru i wezly Leonarda’, in: Swiatla Stambulu, Warsaw, 1999 (first published in Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, vol. 31, 1969, no. 1, pp. 3–40).

The 2012 Italian version of Kemp/Cotte’s 2010 book is a translation from the English with the addition of the Sforziad hypothesis. The latter had already been published on the Lumiere Technology website and I discussed it at length.

Gnignera’s text was in Italian so I used Prof. Zygulski’s extensive knowledge of historic costume in general and coazzone in particular. The Monza catalogue (2015) was not published when I submitted my paper. The 2014 exhibition catalogue from the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino was also unavailable. To my knowledge these later publications have not yielded any conclusive evidence.

Prof. Kemp said that I have not addressed any of ‘the scientific evidence in the two books related to the lower layers of the image, the pentimenti or the condition and retouching in various media’ and goes on to say ‘contrary to Pisarek’s assertions, the interventions of restorers are documented in both books’. The latter sentence must refer to my ‘it is also strange that he did not consider that the drawing might have been retouched and repainted at a later time’ (p.79). Prof. Kemp has taken this out of context. I said that he did not mention the restorations in that particular passage of his book Leonardo (p. 210).

I not only analysed his art historical arguments in my text, but also the technical evidence presented by Cotte – which is to say:

– The trois crayons, pen and ink and bodycolour technique on vellum (unprecedented for Leonardo);

– The X-rays (inconclusive, in Cotte’s own words “did not yield significant new findings”, p. 154)

– The Carbon-14 dating of the vellum (wide-ranging 1440-1650, not constituting proof in itself as anyone could draw at any time on a blank folio removed from a manuscript)

– The quality of the vellum (rough; drawing on the hair-side; does not match the Sforziad’s smooth and well-prepared support; Birago’s illumination on the skin-side)

– The left-hand hatching (dry, timid and mechanical; on the outside of the contour of the profile, unlike in all Leonardo’s female portraits)

– The presence of three stitch holes (the Warsaw National Library Sforziad has five holes)

– The ‘knife marks’ when the folio was cut off (unnecessary, if the folio has been removed during rebinding).

– The retouchings of a later restorer (Marchig’s)

– The fingerprint evidence (no longer valid)

– The pentimenti, in the same place as in Leonardo’s Windsor portrait (a negative point, as La Bella Principessa could be based on that drawing).

At this point I would like to discuss some more scientific evidence:

On page 109:

“The support is probably the fine-grained skin of a calf”.
To the contrary, the images show an irregular grainy surface with visible follicles. Both Geddo and Turner described the support as “rough animal hide” and the surface of the vellum as being “pitted”.

“The portrait was drawn on the smooth ‘hair’ side”.
To the contrary, the hair-side has follicles so it is the rough side, not the smooth side.

Contrary to Prof. Kemp’s claim that I ignored Geddo’s contributions, I quoted her (p. 76), and she said exactly the opposite: “Besides the presence of the follicles, the rough unworked surface of the hide and its darkened, somewhat yellowish colour show that the portrait was made on the outer surface of the skin (formerly fur­covered) and not on the inner one covering the flesh, which was aesthetically the superior of the two and commonly used as a support for written documents”.

I quoted extensively from Geddo’s article “A ‘Pastel’ by Leonardo da Vinci: His Newly Discovered Portrait of a Young Woman in Profile”, in Artes, 2008–2009, pp. 67–87, on my pages 62, 76 and 88.

On page 114:

The discovered “small area of pen marks along the left edge of the support” described by Cotte as Leonardo’s “pen trials”. This would surely have no place in a drawing destined for a luxury book presented as a gift to the Sforzas.

On page 154:

A problem with the X-rays:

‘Because white chalk (calcite or calcium carbonate) does not absorb X-rays to any great extent, the luminous zones of the sitter’s face ought to have appeared grey in the X-ray. On the contrary, however, they appear very white here, indicating the presence of a significant amount of dense material in the chalks area – which seems to contradict all the physical evidence considered so far.’

Cotte attributes this anomaly to the technician supposedly over-exposing the plate. This confirms his own observation that X-rays “are vulnerable to diverse interpretation”.


[KP] I did not say that the Marchigs were involved in forgery of any description. What I did say was that Giannino was familiar with Leonardo’s technique as a restorer and a “Leonardesque painter”. He was able to make such a drawing if he had wanted to, but clearly he had not tried to sell La Bella Principessa as a work by Leonardo.

Prof. Kemp does not explain, however, why the drawing had no provenance prior to Marchig’s ownership, and, as Michael Daley has recently pointed out, Professor Kemp and the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman jointly trawled Berenson’s archive in hope of finding some pre-Marchig record but found none.

[MK] “3) The assertion that there is an ‘almost total absence of close comparisons with unimpeachable works by Leonardo.’”

[KP] The offending phrase above was written not by me but by David Ekserdjian in “Leonardo da Vinci: ‘La Bella Principessa’ – The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 152, 2010, no. 1287, June (Attributions, copies, fakes), pp. 420–421.

I used the same Leonardo comparisons as Prof. Kemp, but where he saw striking similarities, I saw possible imitation.

As to Cecilia Gallerani, although the structure of the eye looks comparable, it is round, soft and alive in Leonardo’s portrait, and dry, linear and lifeless in La Bella Principessa. The iris is drawn as a flat disc and the eyelid is marked with clear cut lines, unlike in nature.

Cotte states on p. 177: “Leonardo, for example, consistently made the bottom of the eye’s iris coincide exactly with the edge of the lower eyelid”.
This is not always the case. In Portrait of a Woman in Windsor or in La Belle Ferroniere the iris does not touch the lower eyelid, while in some works by Leonardo’s followers it does.

[MK] “4) The lack of records of Leonardo making the drawing”

[KP] Prof. Kemp wrote that all Leonardo’s known works are “unrecorded in his writings”. Leonardo does in fact mention two Madonnas in a sheet of sketches (Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degi Uffizi, Florence, 446 E) inscribed: “…1478, I began the two Virgin Marys”, possibly referring to the Benois Madonna in St. Petersburg. He also mentions in a note his sculpture of the Sforza Horse (Ms. C, fol. 15v; R 720; B 44; V 53). And in an undated letter (about 1491-95), he writes together with De Predis about being underpaid for the Virgin of the Rocks.

The 16th century record in the Zamoyski collections Kemp refers to applies only to the Sforziad, not to the drawing, which was unrecorded there.

[MK] “5) ‘The entirely unusual for Leonardo medium of vellum commonly found in manuscripts led Prof. Kemp and his colleagues, including David Wright, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of South Florida, to search fifteenth-century codices for an excised illumination.’”

[KP] Prof. Kemp writes that “the author’s narrative of an extensive search is imaginary.”

But Dalya Alberge wrote in her article, “Is this portrait a lost Leonardo?” in The Guardian, on 27 September 2011:

“Earlier this year, he [Prof. Kemp] embarked on what he describes as a ‘needle-in-a-haystack’ search for a 15th-century volume with a missing sheet. […] Against the odds, Kemp tracked the volume down, to Poland’s National Library in Warsaw.”

[MK] “6) Forging a Leonardo?”

[KP] To be clear, I only said that the drawing could be a compilation of Leonardo’s works and other sources such as a bust by Cristoforo Romano.

[MK] “7) Pisarek’s reliance on Julia Cartwright”

Cartwright’s work is the only one specifically on Bianca Giovanna Sforza I could find in the English language. As there are no other secure portraits of Bianca Giovanna, the Principessa hypothesis is not supported by any evidence either.

Cartwright’s identification of The Musician as the portrait of Galeazzo Sanseverino, Bianca’s husband, looks convincing. The companion portrait in the Ambrosiana could then be showing his wife Bianca, but she looks very different to La Bella Principessa. Also Professor Carlo Pedretti in his Leonardo: The Portrait, 1999, called the Ambrosiana portrait (p. 23) “a probable portrait of Bianca Giovanna, the illegitimate daughter of Francesco Sforza.”

[MK] “8) Bianca Maria Sforza and earlier scholarship”

Even if the identification and dating of the portrait ‘pre-dates the research into the Sforziad’, as stated by Prof. Kemp, there is still the problem of the dating and the too ‘archaic’ style of the drawing.

Kemp does not explain why Vezzosi and Turner identified La Bella Principessa as Bianca Maria Sforza, even if she looks so different to her other known likenesses.

[MK] “9) Cutting out the portrait from the Sforziad in Warsaw”

[KP] There is no evidence that the folio was in the Sforziad and was removed during rebinding. But if it were so, there would be no need to cut out the folio, only to remove it as a complete sheet. A complete sheet (two folios) is indeed missing in the book, which would eliminate the need for excision.

If the folio had been removed during rebinding for its beauty or high value by the Zamoyskis, it would have been recorded in their collections, but there are no such records. Kasia Wozniak’s research has not found any evidence to this effect.

Her hypothesis that the drawing went to the Czartoryski collections in Pulawy where it was identified as by Leonardo is also so far unsubstantiated. There were no such records in the Czartoryski collections. The late Director of the Czartoryski Museum, Prof. Zygulski Jn. never mentioned the existence of a Leonardo drawing in their collections.

The Bona Sforza drawing listed in the 1815 inventory of the Temple of Sybil in Pulawy and mentioned by Wozniak as the possibly misidentified Bianca Giovanna Sforza, refers to a miniature watercolour on vellum illustrated in D. Dec and J. Walek’s, Czasy! Ludzie! Ich dziela. Teatr obrazów ksieznej Izabeli, listed as no. 99. ‘Polish, 16th century’.

There is no connection between my article in Artibus and the interests of the National Library in Warsaw.

[MK] “10) The foliation and inserted paper pages”

[KP] Prof. Kemp himself used the word ‘codex’ to describe the Sforziad in his book Leonardo: Revised edition, 2011, p. 256:
“this tender and refined formal portrait in ink and coloured chalks on vellum has been cut from a codex (a book), namely the copy of the Sforziada in Warsaw produced for Galeazzo Sanseverino.”

The three folios missing in the Warsaw Sforziad were originally left blank as in the other copies of the book in Paris or London.

Geddo described the drawing’s “apparent crudeness in the preparation of the parchment” and “the rough unworked surface of the hide” (A Pastel by Leonardo da Vinci… reprinted in P. Silverman, Leonardo’s Lost Princess, pp. 219-220). This is not true of the Sforziad’s parchment.

I have seen the Sforziad on two occasions. Once in the summer 2012 and more recently in March 2016; the parchment is finely grained and of high quality, as expected in a luxury book for the Sforzas.

My illustrations Fig. 7, 10 and 11 indeed show paper pages. Because they look so similar it is easy to mistake the paper pages for the vellum ones. My Fig. 6 and Fig. 8 are vellum and they look very similar in colour and texture.

Kemp states that I inaccurately said that his “reconstruction of the insertion of the drawing in the Warsaw Sforziad looks unrealistic, as it is facing a printed page”. He wrote that “The reconstruction shows that the portrait would have faced a blank page”. This is incorrect. His “Fig. 12 – ‘Hypothetical Reconstruction of La Bella Principessa as folio 6r” in the online article “La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad” does face a printed page.

[MK] “11) Iconography”

[KP] According to Kemp, Horodyski’s pioneering research on the Sforziad I support ‘has been superseded in the light of more detailed knowledge of Sforza court iconography and analyses by later scholars, including Wright’.

Horodyski suggested Gian Galeazzo Sforza and his offspring, such as Bona Sforza, the later owner of the book in Warsaw as the recipient of the Sforziad.

But according to D.R.E. Wright in his article on the Lumiere Technology website (which has now been removed), M. L. Evans and E. McGrath, the Warsaw Sforziad was destined for Galeazzo Sanseverino, Bianca’s husband.

So why is Galeazzo Severino’s profile absent on the Warsaw frontispiece by Birago, where Ludovico’s is in London and Gian Galeazzo’s in Paris, the recipients of the other Sforziads?

Moreover, Galeazzo Sanseverino was not part of the Sforza dynasty and Bianca was illegitimate. All the copies of the Sforziad on vellum were dedicated to members of the Sforza family.

Horodyski’s reading of the symbolic content of the Birago frontispiece more logically pointed to the death of Gian Galeazzo: the lack of the recipient’s profile as emblem, the missing figure of Gian Galeazzo in the boat with Ludovico il Moro, the tears in the handkerchief, the sarcophagus, the broken shield with the initials GZ, the crest with one half with arms of Milan and the other of Aragon for Gian Galeazzo.

After my defence of Horodyski’s interpretation, an Italian scholar Carla Glori published online her very detailed new iconographic study of the illumination: ‘The Illumination by Birago in the Sforziad incunabulum in Warsaw: in defence of Horodyski’s thesis and a new hypothesis’. I am quoting her extensively below.

She said: “The incunabula with the illuminations now in London and Florence were the property of Ludovico il Moro, given the recurrence of the central upper figure of a moor, and the presence of the ensign of the Duke of Bari with his devices called “la scopetta” (the little broom) and “I due fanali” (the two beacons). The Paris and Warsaw incunabula were the property of Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza and his family, because they are reproducing the devices of Gian Galeazzo himself and of his father, Galeazzo Maria.”

The sieve, which was said to be the emblem of Galeazzo Sanseverino, was Gian Galeazzo’s personal device (created by his father) called “il buratto” (a sieve held by two hands) with the motto TAL A TI QUAL A MI, as illustrated by the “Cassone dei tre Duchi”, Sforza Castle, Milan, 1479-1494.
Glori also added that the sieve device (“il buratto”) is duplicated in symmetrical position in the central area of the Warsaw illumination.
She concluded that “the Warsaw illumination was dedicated to the memory of the deceased Gian Galeazzo Sforza and his family, and that it was certainly dated after his death (1494)”.

Her argument against the Sanseverino coat of arms or imprese supposedly identified in the Birago’s illumination includes:

– The missing Aragonese “A” in the device of the “three intertwined rings with diamonds” appearing on the Warsaw illumination
– The missing Sanseverino NOSTRO È IL MESTIERE motto
– The fact that the hybrid coat of arms of the Warsaw illumination does not correspond to the coat of arms of the Sanseverino dynasty; it should be silver/white not gold/yellow. “Every armorial certifies that the field (“campo”) of the Sanseverino coat of arms was “SILVER” (white), while the field (“campo”) of the coat of arms in the illumination of Warsaw is “GOLD” (yellow)”. “According to Horodyski’s logical and symbolical interpretation, the emblem is an artistic fusion of the traditional emblem of the city of Milan with the yellow and red lines of the Aragona coat of arms.”
– The reference of the initials “GZ” (appearing in the ducal documents and iconography, also on the ‘Cassone dei Tre Duchi’) to the memory of the deceased dukes Galeazzo Maria and Gian Galeazzo, not Galeazzo Sanseverino.
– The absence of any reference to Galeazzo Sanseverino and his biography such as the tournament lance of the famous jouster, while the ducal arms on the “Cassone dei Tre Duchi” are present: the round shield, the quiver with arrows and the sword. The depicted starry armour on the left is not the typical armour of a jouster. It is empty as Gian Galeazzo is dead, and it is almost identical to the one worn by him in the Paris illumination.
– The presence of a body of heraldic devices celebrating the Visconti-Sforza dynasty and referable in particular to Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his son Gian Galeazzo such as the greyhound/the tree/the divine hand (Francesco Sforza); the “capitergium” device (a bandage with a knot) dedicated to Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan, celebrating the Visconti dynasty; the rising waves (“onde montanti”); the three intertwined rings with diamonds (“i tre anelli intrecciati con diamante), by Muzio Attendolo, the founder of the Sforza dynasty: it was probably given to him in 1409 by the Marquis of Ferrara Niccolò II d’Este after the conquest of Reggio Emilia. They are not emblems of Bianca Giovanna as was advanced, but of members of the Sforza family in general.

According to Glori, “we have no evidence that the incunabulum now in Warsaw was confiscated in Milan during the French invasion. In 1517 Antonio de Beatis saw some precious incunabula in the Royal Library of Blois, but he did not cite the Sforziad as being amongst them in his autograph manuscript XF28 of the National Library in Naples. It is plausible that the incunabulum now in Warsaw was a wedding gift to Bona Sforza from her mother Isabella; I propose also the hypothesis that she received the gift from her aunt Caterina Sforza, probably when she left Milan with Isabella after the downfall of Ludovico il Moro.”

[MK] “12) Betrothal and Marriage”

[KP] Although the word ‘betrothal’ might have been more appropriate than ‘marriage’ in the case of Bianca Sforza, others also wrote that her ‘wedding’ (or nuptials) took place in 1490 or late 1489.

Julia Cartwright in her Italian Gardens of the Renaissance and Other Studies, 1914, (reprint 2013) wrote p. 174: “On the 10th of January, 1490, the wedding [of Bianca and Galeazzo] was solemnised in due splendour in the Castello of Milan (…)”.

Edward McCurdy in The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci, New York, 2013, wrote “Bianca Sforza, a natural daughter of Ludovic who in 1489, while still a child, was married to the famous captain Galeazzo di Sanseverino.” p. 301.

Wikipedia entry for Galeazzo Sanseverino also says “He was married to Bianca, illegitimate daughter of Ludovico Sforza, in 1489.”

[MK] “13) The Technique”

[KP] It was Prof. Kemp himself who said that Leonardo never worked on vellum in his book The story of the new masterpiece… p. 35: “There are no other known works by Leonardo on vellum, but there is previously neglected evidence of his interest in making coloured images on prepared animal skin.”

Turner also wrote in his online Statement concerning the portrait on vellum by Leonardo, p.3: ‘Also apparently unprecedented [for Leonardo] is the use of vellum or parchment as a support for the new portrait.’

Geddo also wrote: “The use of parchment was until now unknown in the work of Leonardo (…)”, in P. Silverman, Leonardo’s… p. 226.

In reference to Jean Perréal and dry colouring, the quotation in full is as follows: “Piglia da Gian de Paris il modo di colorire a secco e’l modo del sale bianco e del fare le carte impastate, sole e in molti doppi, e la sua casetta de’colori”.

The translation for carte impastate as ‘paste-board’ is not anachronistic, as it was used as early as 1760 in Joseph Baretti’s, A dictionary of the English and Italian languages, Vol. 1: “Cartone [composto di piu carte impastate insieme] paste-board.”

I have only inspected the vellum of the Sforziad in Warsaw, not the vellum of the drawing, but both Geddo and Turner have described it as ‘rough animal hide’. This is most certainly not what you will find in the Sforziad in Warsaw.

[MK] “14) Dimensions”

[KP] According to Kemp and Cotte, the dimensions of the vellum pages of the Sforziad vary from 33.0 to 33.4 cm in height, while the drawing is 33 cm high.

I have carefully checked the dimensions with the Librarian in March 2016. All the pages are at least 33.4 cm high and more, up to 33.7 cm. The size of 33 cm would be far too small for the book.

The 5 holes in the book are in fact all double holes. Each of the 5 holes is two small holes, between which a string passes. The distance between the two small holes is about 3 mm. The double holes were never mentioned by Kemp or Cotte.

According to the conservator who was present at the time of my last visit, this is the binding that follows the original binding as there is no damage of any kind. So in total there were as many as 10 small holes, not 3 single ones as in the drawing.

I measured the distances between the 3 holes that Kemp and Cotte measured in La Bella Principessa. The measurements were taken from the middle of the double holes.

The distance between the bottom hole and the middle hole is 11.35 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.06 cm.

The distance between the middle hole and the top hole is 11.7 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.44 cm.

[MK] “15) The profile and the cartoon portrait of Isabella d’Este”

Above, Fig. 4: A comparison of La Bella Principessa with Leonardo da Vinci’s, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c. 1499–1500, Paris, Musée du Louvre.

[KP] The portrait of Isabella d’Este shows the face in profile but the body in three-quarters, unlike La Bella Principessa. The former is also unfinished, rendered softly with the sfumato effect, fluid in execution, while the shading is on the inside of the profile.

La Bella Principessa is shown in full profile, highly finished, rigid and linear, while the shading is on the outside of the profile.

The similarities between the two profiles are only superficial.

The use of the word ‘repaint’ was an incorrect translation of the French word ‘repentir’, which means pentimento. I would like to mention that I have a good enough grasp of drawing techniques as I also trained as a copyist of Old Masters and an art restorer.

[MK] “16) Left-handedness”

[KP] I disagree that “the left-handed execution cannot undermine the attribution”, as it indicates the intention to imitate Leonardo. None of his collaborators or followers were left-handed, so the drawing is either by him or by an imitator/forger.

[MK] “17) The costume”

Above, Fig. 5: Comparisons of La Bella Principessa with Leonardo da Vinci’s, Head of a Woman, c. 1488–1490, National Gallery, Parma (left); Leonardo’s Portrait of a Woman in Profile, c. 1489–1490, Windsor Royal Collection (right); and, Gian Cristoforo Romano’s sculpture, Bust of Beatrice d’Este, c. 1491, Paris, Musée du Louvre (top).

[KP] The simplified and flatly rendered dress as well as the coazzone hairstyle do indeed show similarities with the sculpted busts by Gian Cristoforo Romano (Bust of Beatrice d’Este) and Francesco Laurana. But this could be a negative point, as the drawing could be based on one of these busts.

Incidentally, the opening in Laurana’s sculptures differs from that in La Bella Principessa. In the former it is a wide horizontal cut facilitating the movement of the arm, while in the drawing it is a triangular hole which doesn’t seem to play such a role.

Above, Fig. 6: Gian Cristoforo Romano, Bust of Beatrice d’Este, c. 1491, Paris, Musée du Louvre.

Above, Fig. 7: A comparison of the knots on La Bella Principessa’s dress and Gian Cristoforo Romano’s Bust of Beatrice d’Este, c. 1491.

[MK] “18) The fingerprint”

[KP] The fingerprint evidence which was originally published in the book as “strongly supportive of Leonardo’s authorship” is now considered invalid.

It was not possible to compare the palm imprint to Leonardo’s other examples, and it was described as perhaps unintentional as it is single and isolated, unlike in the execution of Cecilia Gallerani, where many imprints were found where the blending of hues had taken place.

[MK] “19) On Method”

[KP] The “accumulative build-up of different types of evidence” against the attribution to Leonardo is strong, but, as mentioned above, my main arguments were not addressed by Prof. Kemp.

Why is the shading on the outside of the profile? What is the significance of the hand writing on the reverse of the drawing and why was it not investigated? Why is the profile of La Bella Principessa so similar to that in the sculptural Bust of Beatrice d’Este by Cristoforo Romano? Why is the knot on the dress similar to the one on the bust and unlike other Leonardo’s knots? Why are the proportions of the face flawed? Why the vellum of the drawing was described as ‘rough animal hide’ and could it be part of the luxury book of the Sforziad? Why Marchig’s friend the famous Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson had not attributed the drawing to Leonardo? Why there is no known provenance prior to Marchig’s in the 1950s?

In the field of attributions the level of inconsistencies and contradictions always undermine any evidence in favour of a proposed attribution.

[MK] “20) The damaging allegation in the opening to Pisarek’s article that the owner was to set up ‘non-profit-making foundation for multi-disciplinary Classical and Renaissance studies near Florence, to be headed by Professor Martin Kemp’.”

[KP] I made no such allegation. This was a quotation from an article by Simon Hewitt who supports the attribution to Leonardo. This information was published in an Antiques Trade Gazette article by Simon Hewitt in 2009. The article can be found here.

In my article I also wrote: “Prof. Kemp and his colleagues are no doubt genuinely convinced of the authenticity of the drawing, as well as highly enthusiastic about the rediscovery.” This shows that I in no way question Prof. Kemp’s integrity on this matter, only the methodology and the results of the proposed attribution.

Kasia Pisarek, 24 May 2016

Problems with “La Bella Principessa”~ Part I: The Look

The world famous drawing that was dubbed “La Bella Principessa” by Professor Martin Kemp is insured for $150 million and lives in a “secure vault in Zurich”. It is not a portrait of Bianca Sforza by Leonardo da Vinci, as has been claimed, but a twentieth century forged or pastiche Leonardo.


In 1998 the now so-called “La Bella Principessa” appeared from nowhere at Christie’s, New York. A hybrid work made in mixed media that were never employed by Leonardo (three chalks, ink, “liquid colour”), on a support that was never used by Leonardo (vellum), and portraying a woman in a manner that is nowhere encountered in Leonardo, it was presented as “German School, early 19th century” and “the property of a lady”. It went for $22,850 to a New York dealer who sold it nine years later on a requested discount of 10 per cent for $19,000 to an art collector, Peter Silverman, who said he was buying on behalf of another (unidentified) collector whom he later described as one of “the richest men in Europe”. Thus, at that date, it was not known who owned the drawing or by whom it had been consigned to Christie’s and it remained entirely without provenance. In its nine years long life, no one – not even its new owner(s) – had taken it to be by Leonardo.

In a 2012 book (Lost Princess ~ One man’s quest to authenticate an unknown portrait by Leonardo da Vinci), Silverman claimed a successful upgrading to Leonardo and described how he had gained the support of distinguished scholars including Professor Martin Kemp who had formulated an elaborate hypothetical history in which the drawing was said to be a Leonardo portrait made either from a living subject in celebration of her wedding or in commemoration after her death in 1496.

Nonetheless, the drawing failed to gain a consensus of scholarly support and is rejected in centres like New York, London and Vienna. Carmen Bambach, the Metropolitan Museum’s Renaissance drawings authority dismissed “La Bella” on the grounds that “It does not look like a Leonardo”. Thomas Hoving, a former Metropolitan Museum director, held it to look “too sweet” to be Leonardo. ARTnews reported that the Albertina Museum’s director, Klaus Albrecht Schröder, had noted “No one is convinced it is a Leonardo”. In the Burlington Magazine Professor David Ekserdjian suspected it to be “counterfeit”.


In matters of attribution the most important consideration is the look of a work. Many things can be appraised simultaneously but, conceptually, the “look” of a work might be broken down into two aspects: an initial at-a-glance response to a work’s effects and appraisal of its internal values and relationships; and, a comparison of the effects, relationships and values with those of bona fide productions of the attributed artist, or with those of the artist’s students, associates or followers. It can also be useful to compare the looks of works with those of copyists and known forgers. It might fairly be said that in connoisseurship, as in the evaluation of restorations, visual comparisons are of the essence. (In ArtWatch we take pride in the extent to which we seek out all possible comparative visual material and regret that some institutions still hinder our efforts in this regard.)

Above, Fig. 1. If we put aside questions of attribution and simply look at the group above, we find works of remarkably similar figural motifs and formats that clearly relate to and derive from a most distinctive type of 15th century Italian profile female portrait. These similar-looking works are similarly sized, being, respectively from left to right:

A Young Woman, 14 and 1/4 x 10 inches;
“La Bella Principessa”, 13 x 9 and 3/4 inches; and,
A Young Woman, 18 x 12 1/2 inches (here shown mirrored).

All show young women depicted in the strict early Renaissance profile convention made in emulation of antique relief portraits on coins and medals. Although very widely encountered (see Fig. 4), Leonardo side-stepped the type in order to intensify plastic and expressive values with sculpturally-purposive shading and axial shifts in the bodies and gazes of his portraits (see Fig. 6). The portrayals above are strikingly similar in their head/torso relationships; in their absences of background; in their highly elaborated coiffures which offset ‘sartorially’ skimped and unconvincing simplifications of costume; in their sparse or wholly absent depictions of jewellery; and, even, in their almost identically cropped motifs. Collectively they might be taken as a suite of variations on a simple theme. We take all three to be twentieth century Italian artefacts. At least two of them are linked to Bernard Berenson and the two on which reports have been published have unusual and problematic supports.

As mentioned below, the Detroit picture is painted on top of photographic paper. It is suspected that it might have been a photograph of the Frick sculpture to which the painting was initially related. The “La Bella Principessa” is drawn, exceptionally for Leonardo, on a sheet of vellum which appears to have been removed from a book and it is, most unusually, glued to an oak panel. The panel itself is a curiosity: although a number of “butterfly keys” have been inserted into its back, as if to restrain splitting, there is no evidence of splits in the panel and, if there were, the present four such keys in such a small panel might be considered restoration “over-kill”. If the panel had split while the vellum was glued to it, the drawing would have split with the panel. The fact that the vellum has been “copiously glued” to a (possibly pre-restored) oak panel makes it impossible to examine the back of the drawing which is said by one of its proponents, (Cristina Geddo, an expert in Leonardo’s students and Milanese “Leonardesques”) to bear “superimposed numbers…a written inscription…[and a] little winged dragon – at least that is what it seems.” For Geddo, this unexamined content is reassuring: “This feature, too, counts in favour of an attribution to Leonardo, who, even though he never to our knowledge used a parchment support in his work, was in the habit of re-using the paper on which he drew.”

(In reading the compendious literature on this proposed attribution, we have sometimes wondered what might be allowed by its supporters to count as evidence against the attribution.)


The portrait on the left, A Young Woman, was bought in 1936 by the Detroit Institute of Arts as by Leonardo da Vinci or Andrea del Verrocchio. The institute’s director, W. D. Valentiner, made this attribution on the strength of clear correspondences with the curls in the hair of Leonardo’s painting Ginevra de’ Benci (see Fig. 6) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and with those found in the above-mentioned marble sculpture in the Frick Museum, A Young Woman, given to Andrea del Verrocchio. (Valentiner had made a study of Leonardo’s work in Verrocchio’s workshop.) In 1991 Piero Adorno, specifically identified the Detroit picture as Verrocchio’s lost portrait of Lucrezia Donati. Notwithstanding seeming correspondences with secure works, this picture is now relegated to “An Imitator of Verrochio” – and this is an extremely charitable formulation. In Virtue and Beauty, 2001, David Alan Brown described it as “a probable forgery by its anachronistic materials and unorthodox construction”. “Probable” [!] because: “after a recent technical examination, the picture turns out to have been painted on photographic paper applied to a wood panel that was repaired before it was readied for painting. And at least one of the pigments employed – zinc white – is modern…” Valentiner judged one of two Leonardo studio works of the Madonna with a Yarnwinder to be “more beautiful than the Mona Lisa”.

The portrait on the right, A Young Woman, was attributed to Piero Pollaiuolo by Berenson in 1945. While this figure is perhaps the most attractive of the above three, with its nicely constructed counterbalancing of the thrusts in the neck/head and torso, and its credibly proportioned arm, the work itself has, so far as we can ascertain, sunk without trace. In truth, this female profile portrait type has been assailed by forgeries. Alison Wright notes in her 2005 book The Pollaiuolo Brothers, that “Complications for the historian lie both in the fact that the subjects of most female portraits are no longer identifiable and that, because of their exceptional decorative and historical appeal, such portraits were highly sought after by later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collectors, encouraging a market for copies, fakes and over-ambitious attributions.”

The portrait in the centre (“La Bella Principessa”) has been precisely attributed by Kemp to Leonardo as a book illustration portrait of Bianca Sforza of 1495-96.


Above, Fig. 2. In My dear BB (an incalculably valuable new resource edited and annotated by Robert Cumming), we learn that in November 1930 Kenneth Clark’s wife, Jane, wrote to Berenson: “K has seen Lord Lee’s two new pictures…The Botticelli Madonna and Child you probably know too. K thinks the latter may be genuine about 1485 or rather part of it may be, but it is not a pretty picture…” A footnote discloses that Lee had bought The Madonna of the Veil, a tempera painting on panel in 1930 from an Italian dealer for a then huge sum of $25,000 (Fig. 3). It was widely accepted by scholars as autograph Botticelli and published by the Medici Society as a “superb composition of the greatest of all Florentine painters”. Clark, doubting the attribution on sight, objected that it had “something of the silent cinema star about it” – and he likened the Madonna to Jean Harlow (Fig. 3). Lee donated the picture to the Courtauld Institute Gallery in 1947. In June 2010 Juliet Chippendale (a National Gallery curatorial intern working in association with the Courtauld Institute MA course) disclosed that scientific examination had identified pigments not known before the 18th and 19th centuries and worm holes that had been produced by a drill. It is now designated a work of the forger Umberto Giunti (1886-1970), who taught at the Institute of Fine Art in Siena and forged fresco fragments.


Four months later Clark wrote to Berenson: “Just in case Lee has sent you a photograph of his new Botticelli may I ask you to forget anything Jane may have reported me as having said of it. It is one of those pictures about which it is best to be silent: in fact I am coming to believe it is best for me to be silent about every picture. Did I tell you that my Leonardo book was a mare’s nest. The man had sent photographs of two drawings from the middle of the Codice Atlantico. They must have been early copies done with some fraudulent motive – perhaps the book really did belong to Leonardo – he certainly had read it – & some pupil thought to enhance its value.”

Above Fig. 3. The young Kenneth Clark (then twenty-seven years old) displayed an admirable “eye” by spotting a fraud on sight some eighty years ahead of the pack. Is it better for a connoisseur to see but not speak than it is not to see at all? Undoubtedly, it is. Would Clark have enjoyed his meteoric rise had he humiliated the mighty and exposed the big-time fraudsters of his day? (That question might be taken as self-answering.) If Clark bided his time on Berenson, eventually he delivered an unforgiving former-insider’s repudiation in 1977 by chronicling how Berenson had “sat on a pinnacle of corruption [and] for almost forty years after 1900… [done] practically nothing except authenticate pictures”


Above, Fig. 4. In the middle and bottom rows we see three bona fide works of the female profile type – respectively:

Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza, c. 1493, by Ambrogio de Predis, The National Gallery of Art, Washington;
Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1488-1490 Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; and,
a portrait of Beatrice d’Este tentatively attributed by Kemp to Ambrogio da Predis.

The differences between this trio and the works in the top row are pronounced and eloquent. The secure works are highly individuated and immensely richer in their effects. Collectively, they do not constitute an inadvertent suite. Individually, they are greatly more various compositionally. Collectively, they are markedly richer in jewellery and ostentatiously sumptuous costumes. The distinctive physiognomies of their subjects derive from living persons, not from other art or photographs of other art. Flattery and loving attention are channelled more into the costume and bling than into the facial features. In every respect the opposite is the case in the top row where prettiness has been held at a premium with an eye on the modern photographically-informed market.


Above, Fig. 5: As mentioned, “La Bella Principessa” and her two companions are of a piece, and of a type never followed by Leonardo whose female portraits (see below) pioneered an unprecedentedly complex and sophisticated evocation of real, sculpturally palpable women in tangible spaces or landscapes. To include the figurally impoverished and stylistically anachronistic “La Bella Principessa” in Leonardo’s oeuvre would disjunct his revolutionary arc of insights and innovations in portraiture. Such inescapably disruptive consequences have been ceded tacitly by Kemp, “La Bella Principessa’s” principle defender – some say advocate. In “La Bella Principessa ~ The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci” (Kemp’s 2010 book jointly written with Pascal Cotte of Lumiere Technology and including chapters by the drawings scholar Nicholas Turner and the recently discredited fingerpints expert Peter Paul Biro), Kemp converts an intractable problem into an asset by begging the essential question. That is, he underwrites “La Bella’s” credibility on an assertion that “Any important new work, to establish itself, must significantly affect the totality of Leonardo’s surviving legacy over the longer term.” Without question, the de-stabilising inclusion of “La Bella Principessa” would produce knock-on effects, but arguing backwards from that predictable disturbance to some endorsement of its source is patently unsound methodologically – the inclusion of any atypical work, whether bona fide or forged, into an oeuvre would affect its “legacy”.


Above, top, Fig. 6: Left, Andrea del Verrocchio’s Lady with a Bunch of Flowers of c. 1475; and (right) Leonardo’s (hypothetically extended) Ginevra de’ Benci of c. 1474-1478.

Above, Fig. 7: Left, Leonardo’s The Lady With an Ermine of about 1489-90; centre, Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière of about 1495-96; right, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (La Giaconda) of about 1503-06 onwards.

In the group above we see extraordinary development in Leonardo’s portraits of women over the last quarter of the fifteenth century as he strove to incorporate the entirety of sculptural, plastic, figural knowledge, and to surpass it by making it dance to an artistically purposive tune liberated from the happenstance, arbitrary lights of nature on which sculpture then necessarily depended. Some have attributed the Bargello sculpture, the Lady with a Bunch of Flowers, to Leonardo on the grounds that its subject was Ginevra de’ Benci, the subject of Leonardo’s painting. Others have seen Leonardo’s authorship of it in the beauty of the hands. In Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture, 2010, Gary M. Radke holds that the two works show differences that emerged in the mid-1470s between the two artists. Against this, it has been suggested that the painting might originally have borne a closer relationship to the sculpture with a possible inclusion of hands in a fuller length treatment. A study of hands by Leonardo was incorporated in a hypothetical and digitally realised extension of the painting by David Alan Brown (Virtue and Beauty, 2001, p. 143). Frank Zollner sees the painting as marking the point (1478-1480) at which Leonardo broke away from “the profile view traditionally employed in Florence for portraits of women” in favour of the three-quarters view in order to impart “a pyschological dimension to his sitter – something that would become the hallmark of Renaissance portraiture”. Which is all to say that Leonardo had broken away from the profile convention some sixteen to eighteen years before, on Kemp’s hypothesis, he made a solitary and exceptional “return” to it.

Speaking of the reconstruction of Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci painting, Brown writes:

“Ginevra’s portrait, the lower part of which was cut down after suffering some damage, may have included hands. A drawing of hands by Leonardo at Windsor Castle, assuming it is a preliminary study, aids in reconstructing the original format of the picture. As reconstructed, Leonardo’s portrait may be seen to have broken with the long-standing Florentine convention of portraying women in bust-length profile. In seeking an alternative to the static profile, Leonardo, like Botticelli, seems to have turned to Verrocchio’s Lady with a Bunch of Flowers in the Bargello, Florence. Because of the sitter’s beautiful hands which mark an advance over the earlier head-and-shoulders type of sculpted bust, the marble has even been attributed to Leonardo. But the highly innovative conception of the half-length portrait bust is surely Verrocchio’s achievement. What young Leonardo did was to was to translate this sculptural protype into a pictorial context, placing his sitter into a watery landscape shrouded in a bluish haze…”


For the owner and the art historical proponents of “La Bella Principessa”, the very chronology of Leonardo’s female portraits constitutes an obstacle. Given Leonardo’s famous eschewal of strict profile depictions of women, the onus is on those who would include “La Bella Principessa” (- albeit as a solitary and exceptional stylistic regression that was undertaken without ever attracting attention or comment) to make a double case.
First, they must show how and where “La Bella Principessa” might plausibly have fitted within the trajectory of Leonardo’s accepted works. Second, they must demonstrate by comparative visual means that “La Bella Principessa” is the artistic equal of the chronologically adjacent works within the oeuvre. Kemp has proposed the precise date of 1495-96 for the execution of “La Bella Principessa” but, conspicuously, has not presented direct, side-by-side visual comparisons with Leonardo’s paintings. Instead of comparing “La Bella Principessa” of 1495-6 directly with Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière of about 1495-6, Kemp writes:

“If the subject of Leonardo’s drawing is Bianca, it is likely to date from 1495-6. In style, it seems at first sight to belong with his earlier works rather than to the period of the Last Supper. However, Leonardo was a master of adapting style to subject. Just as his handwriting took on an earlier cast when he needed to adopt a formal script, so his drawing style could have reverted to a meticulous formality, appropriate for a precious set-piece portrait on vellum of a Sforza princess.”

“If”? “Could have”? “At first sight”? The pro-attribution literature is bedecked with daisy-chains of such tendentious and weasel words and terms. With which earlier works is “La Bella Pricipessa” deemed to be artistically comparable or compatible? With the Ginevra de’ Benci of c. 1474-1478? With The Lady With an Ermine of about 1489-90? Never mind the red herrings of handwriting and the giant, near-obliterated historical figures of the Last Supper, what of the relationship with Leonardo’s (supposedly) absolutely contemporaneous La Belle Ferronnière of 1495-96? (On this last we volunteer a pair of comparisons below.)

Above, Top, Fig. 8: Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière, left, and the “La Bella Principessa”.
Above, Fig. 9: Details of Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière, left, and the “La Bella Principessa”.

Kemp insists: “The Lady in profile [“La Bella Principessa”] is an important addition to Leonardo’s canon. It shows him utilizing a medium that has not previously been observed in his oeuvre…It testifies to his spectacular explosion and development of novel media, tackling each commission as a fresh technical challenge. It enriches our insights into his role at the Milanese court, most notably in his depiction of the Sforza ‘ladies’ – whether family members or mistresses. Above all, it is a work of extraordinary beauty.”

Even if we were to assume that for some reason Leonardo had opted to “revert” in 1496 to a type he had never employed, what might explain a pronounced indifference in “La Bella Principessa” to the detailed depiction of the “stuffs” of costume with which the artist was simultaneously engaged in La Belle Ferronnière? Given that Leonardo clearly appreciated and celebrated the fact that courtly costume required sleeves to be made as independent garments held decorously in place by ribbon bows so as to permit undergarments to peep through; and, given that Leonardo lovingly depicted not only the varying thicknesses of the costume materials but every individual twist in the threads of the elaborately embroidered band in La Belle Ferronnière, how could he possibly – when working for same ducal master, at the same time – have been so negligent and indifferent in the execution of “La Bella Principessa’s” costume? Kemp acknowledges and offers excuse for the distinct poverty of the costume: “It may be that the restraint of her costume and lack of celebratory jewellery indicates that the portrait was destined for a memorial rather than a matrimonial volume.” In so-saying, he jumps out of one frying pan into another.

If “La Bella Principessa” was made after Bianca Sforza’s death, from whence did the likeness derive? One reason why Kemp settled on Bianca as the preferred candidate subject for “La Bella Principessa” was that while (disqualifying) likenesses of the other Sforza princesses existed, none survives for her – she is an image-free figure. Kemp offers no indication of a possible means for Leonardo’s (hypothesised) post-death conjuring of Bianca’s supposed likeness other than to claim that “Leonardo has evoked the sitter’s living presence with an uncanny sense of vitality.” This again begs the crucial question and fails to consider any alternative explanations for the image’s qualities. (We will be showing how the profile of “La Bella Principessa” could well have been a “portmanteau” composite image assembled from one particular work of Leonardo’s and from that of another, unrelated painter.)

The most strikingly “Leonardesque” feature on the costume of “La Bella Principessa” – the knot patterning around the (implausible) triangular slash in the outer garment – is a source of further concern and constitutes evidence of forgery. First, the motif on which much effort will have been expended, is brutally cropped along the bottom edge of the sheet, as if by a careless designer laying a photograph into a book. Why would any Renaissance artist, let alone Leonardo, design a complicated feature so as to “run it off the page”? Further, the illusion of form (created by lights and shades) in the patterning is feeble in the extreme for Leonardo – as when compared with his treament of relief seen in the above embroidered passage in La Belle Ferronnière, for example. Leonardo probably better understood than any artist in history the vital connection between a thing made and a thing depicted. He took bodies and organs apart to understand their construction and he sought to create mental models that would make the otherwise terrifyingly arbitrary and capricious forces of nature graspable if not checkable. Most seriously of all, as our colleague Kasia Pisarek has noted and reported, while the patterning present on “La Bella Principessa” matches none found in any work of Leonardo’s, it more closely matches that found in a carved marble bust by Gian Cristoforo Romano in the Louvre – see La Bella Principessa – Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo”, Kasia Pisarek, artibus et historiae, no. 71, 2015. (To receive a pdf of Dr Pisarek’s article please write to: )

Michael Daley, 24 February 2012.

In Parts II and III we examine: the provenance of “La Bella Principessa” and the work’s problematic emergence from within the circle of Bernard Berenson; the claim by the forger Shaun Greenhalgh to have produced “La Bella Principessa” in Britain in the 1970s; the spurious “left-handed-ness” of “La Bella Principessa” and the low quality of, and the means by which the drawing was made…