The Da Vinci Question

Hatch marks on La Bella Principessa

Pointing out the hatch marks on a closeup of La Bella Principessa. Image courtesy Science Television Workshop.

According to Kemp, in 1489 Ludovico legitimized his daughter Bianca, by his mistress Bernardina de Corradis. The next year he betrothed Bianca to Galeazzo Sanseverino, commander of Ludovico's armies, and the two married in 1496. Bianca died a few months after her marriage of what is believed to have been an ectopic pregnancy, at about 14 years of age. Beatrice, Ludovico’s wife, only a little older than Bianca, wrote to her sister about her friend’s death:

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 Galeazzo, none the less I must write these few lines with my own hand, to tell you how great is the trouble and distress that 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!

The portrait features the young woman in somber clothes rather than in the celebratory ones suitable to a wedding, suggesting her family commissioned the manuscript and painting in memory of Bianca after her death rather than in celebration of her marriage.

The final word on the status of La Bella Principessa remains to be said. After his study of the portrait Kemp said: “At the end of the day it has got to survive on the ‘wow’ factor. . . . It has got to do that over a long period of time.” But not all Leonardo scholars and art curators are yet on board. Carmen Bambach of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, who as of this writing had not seen the actual drawing, is not convinced. However, several other Leonardo scholars agree with Kemp, including Carlo Pendretti, a Renaissance art historian at UCLA; Alessandro Vezzosi, head of the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Vinci; and Cristina Geddo, an expert on Leonardo’s followers. Meanwhile Kemp is continuing with his work on the portrait and says the scholarship on La Bella Principessa as a Leonardo continues to fall into place.

Jo Ann Caplin, an Emmy Award–winning producer, is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches the Science and Art of Leonardo. She was the Société de Chemie Industrielle Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2006 and again in 2009. The authentication of the Leonardo would not have happened without the support of the Société and a Dreyfus Foundation Special Grant.