La Bella Principessa

Last update, Saturday 13 April 2019

La Bella Principessa, private collection, attribution uncertain

LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA AND THE BOTTICELLI CONNECTION

This portrait is generally referred to as La Bella Principessa. The sitter is thought to be Bianca Giovanna Sforza, the illegitmate 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.

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?

I propose that there is such a document. It is linked to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, and I present details here.

ABOUT BIANCA

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 but suffered 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.

MANTEGNA’S MASTERPIECE

“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 step-mother 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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