The Da Vinci Question

Martin Kemp

Historian and Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp compares the portrait to its digital scans. Image courtesy Science Television Workshop.

“When something like this comes up, the first thing you think is that perhaps it is too good to be true,” Kemp said after studying the high-resolution scans. “I am usually very cool when I see something, because you can let your enthusiasm run away with you.” His response to the drawing’s earlier 19th-century attribution was, however, emphatic: “No way!”

To the Vault

Our next stop was Switzerland—to see the portrait itself. We were told only that we were going to “the vault.” En route we puzzled over where exactly the portrait was being stored. In the basement vault of a bank? In a safe deposit box? We were wrong: the portrait was stored in an anonymous warehouse, in a large, unmarked wooden box, well packed for shipping. Unpacking her was an ordeal. The big wooden box had to be unscrewed, which took two workmen about a half hour. The portrait was packed in a larger wooden frame to hold it in place for shipping, surrounded by Styrofoam and wrapped carefully in tissue—all of which needed to be dismantled. Finally, with everyone wearing white gloves to protect against dirt and grease from human skin, Cappuzzo put the Profile of a Young Fiancèe into Kemp’s hands.

The examining room, in shades of gray, provided a strong contrast to the softness and subtlety of the drawing. Before we left for Paris, Kemp told me that over the past 30 years he had seen many works owners hoped would be Leonardos; of them all this was the first serious possibility. Now in the vault, with the work before him, he pulled out a jeweler’s glass and began his close examination. He quietly studied the portrait for what seemed to us like hours. As we were filming, I kicked Vic Losick, the director of photography, whispering “focus, focus.” But he was in focus; his camera simply captured the extraordinary refinement and softness of the work. Finally Kemp put the drawing down and spoke. His first impression, he said, was of beauty filled with signs of Leonardo, corroborated by the technical evidence provided by the scans. “She has a melting subtlety,” he said, marveling at how much softer and more delicate than the digital scans the portrait was in reality.

Despite the visible bumps and restorations brought about by its age, he remarked on the good condition of the portrait. “This woman is 500 years old. If you or I looked this good after 500 years, we’d be doing a good job.”

Finally, Kemp addressed the question we had been waiting for him to answer. Was it a Leonardo original or not?

He took forever, but finally he said it: “The technical evidence says it is not a forgery.” He told us that acceptance would not happen overnight. However hard he worked on the intellectual context and patronage, however well the science corroborated the evidence, there was still another factor: “There is that element where you just have to say, ‘that is just fantastic and it’s the real thing.’ And having looked at it closely, I am prepared to say that I think it’s fantastic and it’s the real thing.”

Who’s That Girl?

Kemp’s research suggested the young woman had graced the sheepskin cover of a manuscript of poems about her. This finding, combined with her obvious beauty and her dress and hairstyle suggesting her place in the upper class of Milan in the late 15th century, led him to rename her La Bella Milanese. Some complained that name made her sound like a veal chop. When new research revealed a more somber purpose to the portrait, she was renamed La Bella Principessa.

Supposing her to belong to the Sforza family based on her green, red, and white clothing, Kemp identified five women in the court as possible models. One of the five was Ludovico Sforza’s wife Beatrice, but a painting known to be of Beatrice shows a different woman. Another was Isabella of Aragon, the wife of Ludovico’s nephew Gian Galeazzo, but photographic evidence of a painting of her shows differences. The story was similar for Sforza’s niece Bianca Maria, painted by Ambrogio da Predisa in 1493. His other niece, Anna, remained a possibility, as did another relative.