Is she or isn’t she?
In 1998 an art dealer in Paris was flipping through the Christies catalogue when he came upon this young lady:
“Head of a Young Girl in Profile to the Left in Renaissance Dress. German. Early 19th century. Pen, ink and chalk on vellum, mounted on oak board”
The venerable auction house had it listed as an 19th cent work from Germany but the art dealer had a different idea. Off he dashed to NYC to buy this little mystery but unfortunately he was outbid. The story could have ended there, but in an interesting twist of fate, this same art dealer was wandering through an UES art gallery ten years later when he bumped into her again. This time he bought her on the spot and with his pockets $22,000 lighter he flew back to Paris to get to know his young lady.
Friends and colleagues in the world of fine art agreed: “It looks Italian”….”Renaissance probably”…”the work of a master”. What artist capable of such great talent was working in Italy during the Renaissance?..Who could it be?……..
A wild idea was taking form. The art dealer placed a call to Martin Kemp, an art historian at Oxford University and an authority on Leonardo daVinci. “Hey Martin, can you take a look at this little picture I found and tell me what you think?” In England, Prof. Kemp is intrigued by the similarity to Leonardos work and agrees to investigate further.
Confirmation of the date seemed to be in order. If the work was indeed created in the nineteenth century then the research need go no further. Time to turn to science for some answers. In Paris, our friend takes the drawing to art specialist Giammarco Cappuzzo for some handy carbon 14 dating. When the tests show that the vellum dates, not from the 19th cent as Christies thought, but from the late fifteenth and early 16th centuries, the investigation kicked into high gear. Infrared imaging was now called for, and a friend of Cappuzzo had, in a lab across town, an amazing camera that is able to take pictures of such clarity that every detail is revealed. Cappuzzo pops the young lady in the back of his scooter and takes off across Paris, weaving through traffic with what could very possibly be the find of the century secured in his little moped.
The multi-spectral imaging allowed a peek between the layers of ink and chalk and showed some very interesting things. There were corrections made to the drawing before it was finished, very similar to the way Leonardo worked. With the high resolution images they were able to examine the drawing in minute detail and saw a fingerprint left by the artist, left handed sloping of the penmarks, and exquisite draftsmanship. All hallmarks of da Vinci. And all present on this drawing.
Perhaps most importantly, they found three little holes on the left side, evenly spaced as if bound in a book. An intriguing clue..
In the meantime word has been traveling around the art community. An expert on Italian renaissance costume had a very interesting little piece of information: The young lady in the drawing is wearing her hair in a coazzone: a style made popular in Milan in the late 15th cent by the ladies of the ruling Sforza family.
Ludivico Sforza was the duke of Milan from 1498-1500 and the patron of Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, Ludovico commissioned The Last Supper.
It is all falling together…
Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan 1489-1500
A Professor of art history in Florida sends an email to Professor Kemp “You know, Martin, you should pop on over to Warsaw and take a look at this old book they have that used to belong to the Sforzas”
The parade of experts goes off to Poland where they find the Sforziada, an illuminated manuscript commemorating the marriage of little Bianca Sforza, illegitimate daughter of Ludovico, to Galeazzo Sanseverino one of Ludovicos generals. Bianca would have been the right age for the girl in the drawing and, lo and behold,..
Prof Kemp holds a copy of Le Bella Principessa while studying the Sforziada in Warsaw
…..the drawing fit perfectly. The holes aligned with the binding, and the book even had a page missing, right where the portrait would have been placed. Suspicions were confirmed and hopes realized. The world is now one Leonardo richer.
My understanding is C14dating + Sforza hairstyle + left-handed hatching(shading)+missing page from the Sforziada =
a long lost Leonardo!
It’s certainly possible,and I love a story with a happy ending, but all my years as an art historian (0) combined with all my years as a teensy bit of a cynic (many) leave me feeling that this would be a perfect forgery. For one thing, it has hardly any provenance. That puts up a big red flag for me. A work by Leonardo unknown for almost 500 years until it suddenly pops up in the possession of a little old lady in Switzerland? A little old lady who is now suing Christies for the misattribution, which would add verisimilitude to the story.
I hope it is a Leonardo. The world needs another Leonardo more than it needs another cynic, so I am joining Team Kemp.