ATG correspondent SIMON HEWITT gains exclusive access to the evidence used to unveil what the world’s leading scholars say is the first major Leonardo Da Vinci find for 100 years.
Is this 13 x 9in (33 x 24cm) portrait, in chalk, pen and ink on
vellum, mounted on an oak board, a long-lost work by Leonardo da
Vinci? That is the claim being made by Martin Kemp, Emeritus
Professor of History of Art at Oxford University.
Catalogued as "German, early 19th century" and sold for $19,000
at Christie's New York in the late 1990s, new scientific techniques
have uncovered evidence that has convinced a growing number of the
world's leading Leonardo scholars that it is a previously
ATG have had exclusive access to that scientific evidence and
can reveal that it literally reveals the hand - and fingerprint -
of the artist in the work.
The fingerprint is "highly comparable" to one on a Leonardo work
in the Vatican.
Professor Kemp's assertion is backed by scientific evidence
obtained by the revolutionary "multispectral" camera pioneered by
Lumière Technology of Paris.
Peter Paul Biro, the Montreal-based forensic art expert,
examined the multispectral images and found a fingerprint near the
top left of the work, corresponding to the tip of the index or
middle-finger, and "highly comparable" to a fingerprint on
Leonardo's St Jerome in the Vatican (which, stresses Biro,
is an early work from a time when Leonardo is not known to have
A palm-print in the chalk on the sitter's neck "is also
consistent in application to Leonardo's use of his hands in
creating texture and shading", adds Biro, who is credited with
pioneering fingerprint studies to help resolve authentication and
attribution issues of works of art.
The Lumière camera has already been used to analyse Leonardo's
Mona Lisa and Lady with an Ermine; by the
Kröller-Müller, Van Gogh and Cleveland Art Museums; and by the Art
Institute of Chicago.
Multispectral analysis reveals each successive layer of colour,
and enables the pigments and pigment mixtures of each pixel to be
identified without taking physical samples.
For the vellum portrait, Lumière have been able to establish the
composition of the materials used in both the original drawing and
the restoration. It transpires, for instance, that the green of the
girl's costume was obtained by applying progressive strokes of
black chalk to the yellowish surface of the vellum.
Lumière have identified the chalk as amphelite, a fine-grained
black argillite (clay slate). Meanwhile flesh tints, and the amber
tone of the iris, were achieved by leaving the vellum
Infrared analysis reveals significant pentimenti throughout,
with stylistic parallels to those in Leonardo's Portrait of a
Woman in Profile in Windsor Castle; and shows that the drawing
and hatching were made by a left-handed artist (as Leonardo is
famously known to have been), whereas restoration was carried out
There is no other known work by Leonardo on vellum, although
Professor Kemp (citing a passage in Leonardo's Ligny Memorandum)
points out that, when French court painter Jean Perréal visited
Milan with Charles VIII in 1494, Leonardo quizzed him about the
technique of using coloured chalks on vellum.
Professor Kemp suggests that Leonardo used vellum here because
the portrait was intended to adorn a book of poetry in honour of
the sitter; three needle holes along the left edge of the vellum
indicate it was once bound in a manuscript.
The sitter's costume and elaborate hairstyle reflect Milanese
fashion of the late 15th century. Carbon-14 analysis of the vellum,
carried out by the Institute for Particle Physics in Zurich, is
consistent with such a dating [it gave a date-range of
But who is the wistful, peach-skinned, flaxen-haired
After originally code-naming her La Bella Milanese,
Professor Kemp - who dubs her profile "subtle to an inexpressible
degree" - upgraded her to La Bella Principessa after
identifying her, "by a process of elimination", as Bianca Sforza,
daughter of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan (1452-1508), and his
mistress Bernardina de Corradis.
Kemp believes the portrait must date from around 1496 when, aged
13 or 14, Bianca married the Duke's army captain, Galeazzo
Sanseverino (a patron of Leonardo's). Tragically, she died four
months after the wedding.
This would be Leonardo's first known Sforza 'princess' portrait,
although he painted two of the Duke's mistresses: Cecilia Gallerani
(Lady with an Ermine in the Czartoryski Museum, Cracov);
and Lucrezia Crivelli (La Belle Ferronière in the
After centuries of oblivion, the portrait resurfaced at
Christie's New York on January 30, 1998, as lot 402 in an Old
Master Drawings (part II) sale as a Young Girl in Profile in
Renaissance Dress - catalogued as "German, early 19th
century", with a $12,000-16,000 estimate.
It sold for $19,000 (hammer) to New York dealer Kate Ganz, who
sold it (for about the same sum) to the Canadian-born, Europe-based
connoisseur Peter Silverman in 2007.
Ganz had suggested the portrait "may have been made by a German
artist studying in Italy… based on paintings by Leonardo da
Silverman, an underbidder at Christie's sale, had other ideas
and mentioned the work to Dr Nicholas Turner, formerly Keeper of
Prints & Drawings at the British Museum, when he bumped into
him at the Polidoro da Caravaggio exhibition at the Louvre
in January 2008.
Turner, who had seen a transparency of the work a few months
earlier, told Silverman he suspected Leonardo's involvement because
of the "very high quality of the work overall, and the left-handed
shading - his signature feature", and directed Silverman to the
renowned Leonardo specialist Martin Kemp.
Professor Kemp's first reaction was that "it all sounded too
good to be true - after 40 years in the Leonardo business, I
thought I'd seen it all!" But, as he pursued his research, "all the
bits fell into place like a well-made piece of furniture. All the
drawers slotted in".
Silverman is coy about the work's current ownership, and the
portrait has yet to be shown in public since its reattribution.
However, Professor Kemp has recently completed a 200-page book
about it (so far unpublished) in conjunction with Lumière
Technology's Pascal Cotte.
Attempts to display La Bella in a museum are said to
have faltered because of financial concerns linked to insurance -
as a Leonardo, the portrait has been valued by London dealer Simon
Dickinson at £100m.
The portrait is now due to go on display next March at a show
called And There Was Light: The Masters of the Renaissance Seen
in a New Light to be held in the Eriksbergshallen,
The exhibition's artistic director is Alessandro Vezzosi,
Director of the Museo Ideale in Vinci, Leonardo's home town, and
the first man to publish the portrait as a Leonardo in his book
Leonardo Infinito last year.
Professor Vezzosi is one of a growing roster of Italian art
historians who believe the portrait is an autograph work, including
Mina Gregori, Professor Emerita of the Florence University and
President of the Fondazione Longhi; Dr Cristina Geddo, an expert on
Leonardo's Milanese followers; and Professor Claudio Strinati, Head
of the City of Rome Museums, who states that "the portrait
constitutes a valuable addition to Leonardo's oeuvre".
To Professor Carlo Pedretti, head of the Fondazione Pedretti for
Leonardo studies and widely considered the doyen of Leonardo da
Vinci expertise, "this could be the most important discovery since
the early 19th century re-establishment of the Lady with the
Ermine as a genuine Leonardo".