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Apparently a portrait thought to be the work of a 19th century German painter is, in fact, a much older painting done by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci.  This is a rare event.  To put it in perspective, Halley's Comet has visited the Earth twice since they last identified a  previously unknown piece by Leonardo.  It's unlikely this will ever happen again.  If it does, I doubt anyone reading this will be alive to see it.  (I may be surprised - h/t true blue).

Follow me over the jump if you are interested in a larger image along with a discussion of this piece in the context of Da Vinci's other works while in the service of Ludovico Sforza.

The image certainly has elements one would associate with Leonardo, but given the impact of the Mona Lisa on portrait painting, that is not surprising.  The evidence that nailed this is the fingerprint (white box).  It matches a fingerprint found on Leonardo's St. Jerome.  That's pretty stunning.  Apparently, Leonardo put his hands all over his work while creating it.  

If the image is of Ludovico Sforza's niece, as suggested, then it is possible to place this piece in a broader context.  Sforza was one of Leonardo's major patrons.  Leonardo worked for him from 1482 to 1499.  He's the fellow who commissioned Leonardo to design the famous (and never completed) statue of the Big Horse.  Due to technical challenges, he never finished the project.  The furthest he got was a 22 foot tall clay model, which the French soldiers used for target practice after they invaded Milan.

During this period, Leonardo did complete a few works.  The major ones being The Last Supper and The Virgin on the Rocks.  The Mona Lisa was not begun until 1504, after Sforza's defeat force Leonardo to flee Milan.

There are three other pieces from that time of particular note because they were all portraits of women in Sforza's court.  Two were mistresses and one was his wife.

The Lady with Ermine (shown on the left) is thought to be Sforza's mistress, Cecilia Gallerani.  The portrait known as La Belle Ferronière (shown on the right) is believed to be his other mistress, Lucrezia Crivelli.  Although these were done prior to the Mona Lisa, some of his distinctive and ground-breaking elements are clearly visible.  The most important element is his revolutionary use of perspective.  Notice how alive the two women are compared to the drawing of La Principessa.  He achieves this by angling the torso and turning the head.  The result is an added depth to the portrait.  It cannot be contained in a single plane of view, unlike the drawing recently discovered.  That effect is also used in the Mona Lisa.

Da Vinci did not do this in all of his pieces.  For example, one of his earliest works, done around 1475 when he was an apprentice to Verrocchio, is called The Annunciation (detail shown at left).  Leonardo is credited with painting Gabriel and the background.

This piece shows how relatively primitive his early work was.  The angel is flat.  The background is unnatural.  Even the wings on the angel are wrong.  They are anchored too low on the back.  All of these issues will be addressed later in Leonardo's career.  

Leonardo's subsequent anatomical studies gave him a much better understanding of the musculature and placement of limbs.  Equally important was his understanding of how to represent volume and form.  The skin of his subjects becomes more dimensional and alive.  Leonardo actually coined a term to describe the technique he used to create the illusion of depth.

He used the term "sfumato" to describe his technique.  It consisted of overlaying translucent layers of color to create perceptions of depth, volume and form. "Sfumato" refers to the subtle blending of colors or tones.  In Italian sfumato means "blended" with connotations of "smoky" and is derived from the Italian word fumo meaning "smoke".  The key is to do this so subtly that there is no perceptible transition.  Leonardo described sfumato as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke."  

If you look at Lady with Ermine, La Belle or even La Principessa, you can see how dramatically different their faces are compared to Gabriel's in The Annunciation.  They are also very different from a piece he worked on at the same time, the portrait of Sforza's wife.

The portrait of Sforza's wife, Beatrice d'Este, was painted jointly by Leonardo and Giovanni Ambrogio de Predi.  Predi also collaborated with Leonardo on the Virgin on the Rocks, painting the side panels around the altar.   I think Predi's involvement on that work was due to a billing dispute between Leonardo and the patron.  Billing disputes were something Leonardo was also famous for. :)

What is notable about the portrait of Beatrice d'Este is that she is painted in profile, like La Principessa, but unlike Gabriel, you can see the technical sophistication has increased.  The shadow under the chin and the nape of the neck are more clearly represented.  If you compare her to The Principessa, you will see that Leonardo has used the same technique to bring out the cheeks in La Principessa that he used in the paintings of Sforza's mistresses.

Notice the highlight under the eye emphasizing the cheekbone.  Compare that to the portrait of d'Este and you will note that it lacks any clear definition around the cheek.  d'Este's skin is flat and featureless.  If you look closely at La Principessa, you will see that in addition to the highlight on the cheekbone, there is a highlight along the edge of the eye socket, just short of the hairline. It's subtle, but the effect is dramatic. It drops the eye back into the page.  That creates an illusion of dimensionality not present in the painting of d'Este.  I'll come back to that point towards the end.

It has been speculated that The Principessa was actually commissioned at the request of a suitor so he could get a better idea of what his prospective bride looked like.  This speculation may be due to the fact that Predi was also commissioned to paint such a portrait when Emperor Maximillian I considered marrying Sforza's niece.  That painting still exists and is known as The Empress Bianca Maria.  I include it because it is such a horrible painting when you compare it to Leonardo's drawing :)  However, the striking difference between the two raises an interesting question:  What led experts to conclude this may be Il Moro's niece?  

Another point worth mentioning here is the attention to detail in patterns.  Leonardo's fascination with geometric patterns, as seen in his ceiling painting for Sforza's Salla della assa (room of the wood boards) is evident in all of the embroidery he paints on his subject's clothing.  The intricate and delicate patterns are clearly visible along the shoulder of The Principessa.

The one thing about this that is kind of surprising to me is the flat profile of the drawing.  As mentioned above, the portrait of Beatrice d'Este was a collaborative work.  In fact, it is commonly accepted that Leonardo made a drawing, but never finished the painting.  At about the same time, he also did a drawing of her sister (h/t tikkun), Isabella d'Este, shown at right.  This is notably different from the finished paintings of Beatrice and Bianca.    

There are three things that come to mind here.  First, note the shadowing along the cheek.  This is absent from the final painting.  Even in the drawing it is clear how much more defined the form is as a result of the sfumato.  A second, and telling difference, is the rotation of the torso.  In the drawing, Isabella d'Este is looking straight ahead, but her body is slightly turned.  The torso's posture and hand placement are clearly forerunners of what will be done in the Mona Lisa.  A final point, which is not obvious from the drawing of Isabella, but shows up in the painting is the embroidery along Beatrice d'Este's shoulder.  The pattern in the painting is just a series of overlapping circles.  If you look at larger images of Leonardo's work, you will see that his patterns are almost always more elaborate.

My guess is that Predi was unable to replicate Leonardo's sfumato to the point that he could bring out the form of the cheeks.  It is likely Predi had not done dissections like Leonardo and thus was unfamiliar with the bone structure under the cheek.  It's clear he also had trouble separating his subject from the background.  That, along with the lack of detail in the embroidery patterns is pretty convincing evidence to me Leonardo did not paint Beatrice d'Este's portrait.  

What confuses me about La Principessa is the flat style of posing.  The only thing I can think is that maybe it was a requirement from Maximilian that he see the maiden in profile.  Even that doesn't really sit well with me, given Leonardo's notorious habit of rarely following the rules laid down by patrons.  It's a mystery to me, but I'm happy to leave that a mystery.  Some mystery is good, especially when it comes to art and Leonardo Da Vinci.

Here's a larger image to admire of this newfound treasure.

Originally posted to henry porter on Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 07:28 AM PDT.

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