Mantegna’s masterpiece

La Bella Principessa part 03

“But even supposing the drawing does show Bianca, critics ask how it is possible that not a single document records the existence of such a masterpiece.”

So wrote the British art historian in the Daily Telegraph on April 12, 2010.

Well, such a document does exist and derives from an earlier 15th century painting by Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary and associate of Leonardo da Vinci. The actual document was produced by another contemporary of Leonardo, the Mantua court painter Andrea Mantegna. He took his lead from Botticelli, and particularly the Florentine’s painting of the Adoration of the Magi which is now housed in the Uffizi, Florence.

What is now known as Mantegna’s Parnassus, and exhibited in the Louvre, is essentially a pastiche of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. Both paintings parody aspects of Leonardo’s life and his works. Mantegna acknowledges his source of inspiration by including references to other notable works of Botticelli apart from the Uffizi Adoration.

(Top) Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna, Louvre, Paris
(Above) Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

Whereas Botticelli’s painting accounts for the time before Leonardo left Florenece and moved to Milan around 1481-82, Mantegna has added updates to the Leonardo references, including some which point to the portrait of Bianca Giovanna Sforza, or La Bella Principessa as titled by the Leonardo expert Professor Martin Kemp.

It is said that the Parnassus painting was completed in 1497 (a year after the deaths of Bianca and her stepmother Beatrice) although some of the iconography does suggest a later date of 1498.

That there are references to the portrait of Bianca Giovanna Sforza in the Parnassus painting alongside other works of Leonardo would suggest La Bella Principessa belongs to the same period and was produced by the artist that many experts claim to be Leonardo da Vinci. While the fact that the portrait is on vellum may be considered as a negative by some critics, there is a clear reference to this material in Mantegna’s presentation, utilising the written source from one of Leonardo’s notebooks.

“…And if you want to prepare a thing, you should not have plain glass, take some skin of a goat, soft and well prepared, and then dry it; and when it is ready, use it for drawing, and then you can use a sponge to cancel what you first drew and make a second attempt.” (source)

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