Leonardo… a fun guy

Ben Munster at The Art Newspaper reported this week that “a painting of a princess [La Bella Principessa] possibly by the Old Master [Leonardo da Vinci] has been sold digitally – but questions remain over its provenance, the inherent value of non-fungible tokens and who owns what.” Full story at this link.

Leonardo da Vinci’s La Bella Principessa (1495-96)

This portrait is generally referred to as La Bella Principessa. The appellation was given by art historian Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci. The sitter is thought to be Bianca Giovanna Sforza, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508). Some experts attribute the portrait to Leonardo da Vinci; others oppose the claim. Arguments for and against are presented at this Wikipedia link.

Bianca was born in 1482. She was legitimized in December 1489 and given in marriage to Galeazzo Sanseverino shortly afterwards. ‘Little’ Bianca was seven years old at the time. An agreement was made that the marriage would be consummated only after June 20, 1496, when Bianca had reached the age of 14. Within five months of attaining her ‘maturity’ Bianca died on November 23 from unknown causes but suffered with gastric symptoms. There were no signs of pregnancy and it was speculated that she may have been poisoned. Common symptoms of fungi poisoning are gastrointestinal upsets and abdominal pains. 

Observe the discoloured mushroom-shape vent on Bianca’s shoulder. Could this be a reference to the cause of her death? If so, it would indicate the portrait was completed after Bianca had died in 1496. But how soon after the young woman’s death and was the drawing produced by Leonardo?

Bianca was known to Leonardo da Vinci. Her husband was a patron and friend of the polymath and Leonardo also served at the court of Ludovico Sforza.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph published 12 April 2010, Richard Dorment wrote: “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.”

But what if there is such a document, one produced around the same time the portrait of Bianca Sforza was made, one that points to Leonardo as the artist, and to this day has remained unnoticed by both camps, even though it is in the public domain?

Well, such a document does survive 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.

Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna (1497), Louvre Museum

What is now known as Mantegna’s Parnassus, and exhibited in the Louvre, is essentially a pastiche of some of Botticelli’s paintings that embed some stinging references to Leonardo who is also the butt of Mantegna’s cutting humour in Parnassus

It is said that the Parnassus painting was completed in 1497, a year after the death of Bianca, although some of the iconography does suggest a later date of 1498.

Central in the line of the Nine Muses is a faceless figure with her back to the viewer. She represents Bianca Sforza. The colour of her billowing, olive-green dress is matched to the olive shape and colour of the dress worn by La Bella Principessa

The  muse’s dress forms an umbrella shape around her waist, her stomach area, and represents a mushroom cap. Her white leg is the mushroom’s stalk.

When the umbrella shape is rotated 90 degree clockwise, it takes on a silhouette appearance similar to the profile of La Bella Principessa, the vent on the upper thigh representing the vent on the upper arm of the woman in the portrait. There are other details in both women that can be linked. 

As for locating Leonardo in the Parnassus painting, his presence can be found in four locations. I shall reveal these in a future post.

Bianca Giovanna Sforza

La Bella Principessa part 02

La Bella Principessa. photo by Gianluca Colla

Bianca Giovanna Sforza was the illegitmate daughter of Ludovico Sforza and Bernardina de Corradis. Born in 1482 she was legitimized in December 1489 and given in marriage to Galeazzo Sanseverino shortly afterwards. ‘Little’ Bianca was seven years old at the time. An agreement was made that the marriage would be consummated only after June 20, 1496, when Bianca had reached the age of 14. Within five months of attaining her ‘maturity’ Bianca died on November 23 from unknown causes while suffering with gastric symptoms. There were no signs of pregnancy and it was speculated that she may have been poisoned.

Some six months later Ludovico’s wife Beatrice d’Este died after giving birth to the couple’s third child, a stillborn boy. Beatrice was 21.

Bianca and Beatrice had been close companions at the Milanese court. Following the death of Bianca in November 1496, Beatrice wrote to her sister Isabella d’Este:

“Although you will have already heard from my husband the duke of the premature death of Madonna Bianca, his daughter and the wife of Messer Galeaz, none the less I must write these few lines with my own hand, to tell you how great is the trouble and distress which her death has caused me. The loss indeed is greater than I can express, because of our close relationship and of the place which she held in my heart. May God have her soul in His keeping.”

Bianca was also known to Leonardo da Vinci. Her husband Galeazzo Sanseverino was a patron and friend of the polymath.