Portrait of a Young Fiancée

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La Bella Principessa (formerly called the Portrait of a Young Fiancée)
Italian: La Bella Principessa
A young woman in profile, looking to the left.
Artist attributed to Leonardo da Vinci
Year 1495-6[note 1]
Type Ink and coloured chalks, on vellum, laid on oak panel
Subject Bianca Sforza[note 2]
Dimensions 33 cm × 23.9 cm (13 in × 9.4 in)
Condition Restored
Owner Private collection

'La Bella Principessa' (English: "The Beautiful Princess"), formerly called the Portrait of a Young Fiancée, is a portrait in coloured chalks and ink, on vellum, of a young lady in fashionable costume and hairstyle of a Milanese of the 1490s.[1] Sold at auction in 1998 as an early 19th-century German work, some experts have since attributed it to Leonardo da Vinci. The current owner purchased the portrait in 2007. In 2010 one of those experts, Martin Kemp, made it the subject of his book with Pascal Cotte, La Bella Principessa. The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.[2] Evidence discovered in 2011 accounting for its origins in a vellum book has strengthened the case for it being by Leonardo.[3]

A revised edition of Kemp and Cotte’s book was published in Italian in 2011. A facsimile edition of the vellum book from which it is thought to have been removed is published by Scripta Maneant, together with a catalogue to accompany its exhibition in the Ducal palace at Urbino in 2014-5.

The attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has been disputed. Few still maintain the Christie’s attribution to an early 19th-century German artist imitating the style of the Italian Renaissance, not least because recent radiocarbon dating tests show a much earlier date for the vellum. Others claim that it is an overt forgery (even implicating the restorer Giannino Marchig), or a copy or imitation.


The portrait is a mixed media drawing in pen and brown ink, and colored chalks, on vellum, 33 by 23.9 centimetres (10 by 9 in)[4] which has been laid down on an oak board.[2] There are three visible stitch holes in the left-hand margin of the vellum, indicating that the leaf was once in a bound volume.[2] It represents a girl in her early teens, depicted in profile, which was the standard format for aristocratic portraits, particularly in Milan. The girl's dress and hairstyle indicate that she was a member of the court of Milan, during the 1490s.[1] If it is a Renaissance work, it would have been executed in the 1490s. The nickname, through which the portrait is generally known, La Bella Principessa, was coined by Kemp, though he admits that Sforza ladies were not, technically, princesses.[1]

Provenance and Recent history[edit]

If the drawing is originally a Leonardo illustration for the present-day Warsaw copy of the Sforziad, (an edition of an eulogistic account of Francesco Sforza, printed on vellum), its history is the same as that of the book until the drawing was cut out from the volume.[5] The book has been rebound, probably at the turn of the 18 and 19th century, when it is likely that the portrait was removed to become an autonomous work.[6]

The modern provenance of the drawing is known only from 1955 and is documented only from the 1950s. It is firmly documented from 1998.[7] According to a lawsuit brought by Jeanne Marchig against Christie's after the drawing's re-attribution to Leonardo, the drawing belonged to her husband Giannino Marchig, an art restorer, when they married in 1955. Jeanne Marchig became the owner of the drawing in 1983, following Mr Marchig's death.[8]

The work was included in a sale at Christie's in New York on January 1, 1998, catalogued as Young Girl in Profile in Renaissance Dress, and described as "German School, early 19th Century".[7] The owner was Jeanne Marchig,[2] who had been progressively selling her husband’s collection to benefit her animal charity. It was sold to Kate Ganz, the prominent New York art dealer for $21,850[2] (including buyer's premium).[7] She sold it on for a similar amount to the present owner, Peter Silverman, in 2007, after she had not succeeded in improving Christie’s identification.[9]

Lumière Technology in Paris performed a multi-spectral digital scan of the work,[10] for the present owner, who thought that it originated in the Renaissance. [9] In 2009 the scanned images were analysed by Peter Paul Biro, a forensic art examiner who discovered a fingerprint which he said was "highly comparable" to a fingerprint on Leonardo's unfinished St. Jerome in the Wilderness.[9][11]

The drawing was first shown in a commercial exhibition, And there was Light in Eriksberg, Gothenburg in Sweden,[12] and was estimated by various newspaper reports to be worth more than $160 million.[13][14][15][16][17][18]

It has subsequently been exhibited in Urbino, in the Salone del Trono Palazzo Ducale from December 6, 2014 through January 18, 2015. [10]. This and subsequent showings are being sponsored by the publisher Scripta Maneant. The Urbino exhibition has occasioned much media coverage and large crowds. [12]

Attribution to Leonardo[edit]

A portrait of Beatrice d’Este by Ambrogio da Predis showing a similar hairstyle
Detail of the upper left corner, revealing a fingerprint which has been suggested as being similar to one of Leonardo's.
The frontispiece of La Sforziada from the National Library of Poland (Biblioteka Narodowa) in Warsaw


The first definite attribution to Leonardo came in a report for the owner by the drawings specialist, Nicholas Turner, formerly of the British Museum and the Getty Museum. [13]. It was first published by Cristina Geddo.[19] Geddo attributes this work to Leonardo based not only on stylistic considerations, extremely high quality and left-handed hatching, but also on the evidence of the combination of black, white and red chalks (the French trois crayons technique). Leonardo was amongst the first artists in Italy to use what later became known as pastels, a drawing technique he had learned from the French artist Jean Perréal whom he met in Milan the 1490s. Geddo also points out that the "coazzone" of the sitter's hairstyle was fashionable during the same period. The portrait was highlighted by Alessandro Vezzosi in Leonardo Infinito in 2008, with an introduction by Carlo Pedretti. [15] Vezzosi proposed that it was a nuptial portrait. Mina Gregori fully supported the attribution at an early stage. It is also supported by the analysis of the elaborate hairstyle by Elisabetta Gnigniera. Early support came from Timothy Clifford, formerly Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, an expert on drawings.


In 2010, after a two-year study of the picture, Kemp published his findings and conclusions in a book co-authored with Pascal Cotte, La Bella Principessa. The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman.[1] Kemp describes the work as "a portrait of a young lady on the cusp of maturity [which] shows her with the fashionable costume and hairstyle of a Milanese court lady in the 1490s". By process of elimination involving the inner group of young Sforza women, Kemp concluded that she is probably Bianca Sforza, the illegitimate (but later legitimized) daughter of Ludovico Sforza ("Il Moro"), duke of Milan. In 1496, when Bianca was no more than 13, she was married to Galeazzo Sanseverino, captain of the duke’s Milanese forces. Galeazzo was a patron of Leonardo. Bianca was dead within months of her marriage, having suffered from a stomach complaint (possibly an ectopic pregnancy). Kemp pointed out that Milanese ladies were often the dedicatees of volumes of poetry on vellum, and that such a portrait of a "beloved lady" would have made a suitable title page or main illustration for a set of verses produced on the occasion of her marriage or death.[1]

The physical and scientific evidence from multispectral analysis and study of the painting, as described by Kemp and Cotte,[1] may be summarized as follows:

  • The technique of the portrait is in colored chalks (related to the French trois crayons technique), with pen and ink.
  • The drawing and hatching was carried out entirely by a left-handed artist, as Leonardo is known to have been, although there are restorations by a right-hander.
  • There are significant pentimenti not least behind the sitter's head.
  • The portrait is characterized by particularly subtle details, such as the relief of the ear hinted at below the hair, the delicate lips, the amber of the sitter’s iris and the very fine eyelashes.
  • There are strong stylistic parallels with the Windsor silverpoint drawing of A Woman in Profile (no. 12505), which, like other head studies of women by Leonardo, features comparably delicate pentimenti to the profile.
  • The members of the Sforza family were always portrayed in profile, whereas Ludovico’s mistresses were not.
  • The proportions of the head and face reflect the rules that Leonardo articulated in his notebooks.
  • The interlace or knotwork ornament in the costume and caul corresponds to patterns that Leonardo explored in other works and in the logo designs for his Academy.
  • The portrait was executed on vellum—unknown in the surviving work of Leonardo—though we know from his writings that he was interested in the French technique of dry colouring on parchment (vellum). He specifically noted that he should ask the French artist, Jean Perréal, who was in Milan in 1494 and perhaps on other occasions, about the method of colouring in dry chalks. Leonardo was responsible for the illustrations in Luca Pacioli’s book of solid geometry, De Divina Proportione, the prime version of which on vellum is dedicated to Galeazzo Sanseverino, the husband of Bianca.
  • The vellum sheet was cut from a codex, probably a volume of poetry of the kind presented to mark major events in the Sforza women’s lives.
  • The vellum bears a fingerprint near the upper left edge, which features a distinctive "island" ridge and closely matches a fingerprint in the unfinished St Jerome by Leonardo. In his later writings on the portrait, Kemp has downplayed the fingerprint evidence, preferring to emphasize the palm print in the chalk pigment on the neck of the sitter, revealed by infrared examination, which is characteristic of Leonardo's technique.
  • The green of the sitter’s costume was obtained with a simple diffusion of black chalk applied on top of the yellowish tone of the vellum support.
  • The radiance of the iris was achieved by exploiting the tone of the vellum and allowing it to show through the transparent media.
  • There are noteworthy similarities between this work and the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, including the handling of the eyelids, the modelling of flesh tones using the palm of the hand, the intricacy of the patterns of the knotwork ornament and the treatment of the contours.
  • The now somewhat pale original hatching in pen and ink was retouched in ink in a later restoration, which is far less precise and rhythmic. The ink in the hair and costume has been later reinforced using a fine brush.
  • There have been a number of re-touchings over the years, most evidently in the costume and headdress, , and using paint and chalk in the flesh tones. It now appears likely than one of the campaigns of restoration was undertaken by Marchig using traditional pastels he acquired for the purpose. The restorations, which are quite extensive, have not affected the expression and physiognomy of the face to a serious degree, and have done little to reduce the overall impact of the portrait.

Later analyses of the scans by Cotte, using his innovatory LAM (layer amplification method), have revealed further features of the portrait that support Leonardo’s authorship, including the artist’s drawing of the complete iris of the eye before adding the upper eyelid. The new analyses clarify the extent of later re-touching and how the restorations have adversely affected features of the portrait that have been questioned by skeptics, not least the sitter’s costume.

Further detailed technical analyses conducted by the Centro Conservazione e Restauro in 2014 have confirmed and extended Cotte’s findings, and have produced additional data on the condition and conservation history, which are consistent with a Renaissance date and weigh heavily against the possibility of a forgery.

None of those advocating that the drawing is a forgery have addressed the argument that the scientific examinations exhibit features of which a forger would not have been aware in the 1950s or earlier, including the pentimenti visible only with modern imaging methods, and Leonardo’s characteristic handprint method of blending flesh tones. [1]

Warsaw edition of the Sforziada[edit]

In 2011, D. R Edward Wright, Emeritus Professor at the University of Southern Florida, suggested to Kemp that the portrait might have once been part of a copy in the National Library of Poland in Warsaw of the Sforziada.[20] Wright also contributed to Kemp’s analyses of the iconography of its frontispiece by Birago. The volume in Warsaw is a special presentation copy of the book printed on vellum with hand-illuminated additions. It contains a long propagandistic text by Giovanni Simonetta recounting the career of Ludovico Sforza’s father Francesco and his family. The Warsaw copy, printed on vellum with added illumination, was intended for Galeazzo Sanseverino, a military commander under Ludovico Sforza, on his marriage to Bianca Sforza in 1496.[3] Visiting Warsaw, Kemp and Cotte recognized that three folios were missing from the first quire of the book, one of which may have carried the portrait and one left blank to protect the drawing. Admitting that the precise location of the existing stitch holes in the present binding of the book is difficult to determine, Kemp and Cotte noted that the three holes on the left-hand side of the drawing can be aligned closely with three of the five stitch holes in the sheets in the book.[2][21]

The association with the Sforziada suggests even more strongly that the drawing is a portrait of Bianca Sforza, who was the daughter of Ludovico Sforza and his mistress Bernardina de Corradis. At the time of the portrait she was around thirteen years old.

The Court Case[edit]

A New York federal court lawsuit, Marchig v. Christie's, was brought in May 2010 by the previous owner of "La Bella Principessa", the late Jeannne Marchig, who accused Christie's of breach of fiduciary duty, negligent misrepresentation and other damages. However, the court dismissed the suit on the grounds that the claims were brought years too late (according to the Statute of Limitations), and thus the merits of the suit were never addressed. The district court decision was upheld on appeal.[22] Marchig’s suit was continued with reference to the old frame removed by Christie’s, who eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum [23] The Christie’s specialist, François Bourne, who made their attribution no longer works for the auctioneers.

Disagreement with attribution to Leonardo[edit]

The attribution to Leonardo has been challenged by a number of scholars;[9][22][23] however, much of the criticism predates the suggestion of its origin in the copy of the Sforziada now in Warsaw. Many of the theories of alternative authorship which have been put forward by sceptics, as well as the identification provided by Christie's auction house, are incompatible with the picture originating from this source.[citation needed]

Among the reasons for doubting its authorship are the lack of provenance prior to the 20th century – unusual given Leonardo's renown dating from his own lifetime, as well as the fame of the purported subject's family[23] – and the fact that it was on vellum. Old sheets of vellum are easily acquired by forgers.[9] Leonardo scholar Pietro C. Marani discounts the significance of the drawing being made by a left-handed artist, noting that imitators of Leonardo's work have emulated this characteristic in the past.[23] Marani is also troubled by use of vellum, "monotonous" detail, use of colored pigments in specific areas, firmness of touch and lack of craquelure.[23] A museum director who wished to remain anonymous believes the drawing is "a screaming 20th-century fake", and finds the damages and repair to the drawing suspicious.[23] Michael Daley, the artist and illustrator, has even suggested that it is a forgery by Giannino Marchig, although in this case it is surprising that neither Marchig nor his widow claimed it was by Leonardo. The restorer’s integrity has not otherwise been questioned [25] The work was not requested for inclusion in the 2011–12 exhibition at the National Gallery in London, which specifically covered Leonardo's period in Milan; Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, said simply "We have not asked to borrow it."[23]

Drawing of a woman by Leonardo. A stylistic similarity has been noted between this drawing and and La Bella Principessa.[24]
Drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld which has been suggested as depicting the same female model

Klaus Albrecht Schröder, director of the Albertina, Vienna, said "No one is convinced it is a Leonardo," and David Ekserdjian, a scholar of 16th-century Italian art, wrote that he suspects the work is a "counterfeit".[9] Neither Carmen Bambach of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the primary scholars of Leonardo's drawings, nor Everett Fahy, her colleague at the Metropolitan, accepts the attribution to Leonardo.[9][23]

Although the fingerprint evidence, which was released prematurely, was seized on by the press as definite proof, [27] several forensic experts on fingerprints have discounted Biro's conclusions, finding the partial fingerprint taken from the drawing too poorly detailed to offer conclusive evidence.[9] Biro's description of the print as being "highly comparable" to a known fingerprint of Leonardo's has similarly been discounted by fingerprint examiners as being too vague an assessment to establish authorship.[9] When asked if he may have been mistaken to suggest that the fingerprint was Leonardo's, Biro answered "It's possible. Yes."[9] The fingerprint evidence is not cited in Kemp’s later publications.

Noting the lack of mention of dissenting opinion in Kemp's publication, Richard Dorment, former husband of Kate Ganz, the drawing’s previous owner and a specialist in 19th-century art, wrote in the Telegraph: "Although purporting to be a work of scholarship, his book has none of the balanced analysis you would expect from such an acclaimed historian. For La Bella Principessa, as he called the girl in the study, is not art history – it is advocacy."[23] Vigorous opposition has come from Fred R. Kline, a dealer who owns a drawing of a “Holy Child” that he attributes to Leonardo, [29] and is known for discoveries of lost art by the Nazarene Brotherhood,[25] a group of German painters working in Rome during the early 19th century who revived the styles and subjects of the Italian Renaissance.[25] Kline proposes one of the Nazarenes, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872), as the creator of the drawing.[26] Kline suggests that a drawing on vellum by Schnorr, Half-nude Female, in the collection of the Kunsthalle Mannheim in Germany,[27] as well as two other drawings on vellum by the same artist, may be related. Kline suggests that La Bella Principessa depicts the same model who appears in the Mannheim drawing, but an idealized version of her in the manner of a Renaissance engagement portrait. No alternative attribution has been deemed convincing by Kemp or his research group.

Comparative material-testing of the vellum supports of the Mannheim Schnorr and "La Bella Principessa" were anticipated to occur in the New York court case, but no analysis of the vellum sheets has been made. However, Cotte has demonstrated close similarities between the vellum in adjacent pages in the Sforziada and that used for the portrait. Most of the published disagreements with the attribution to Leonardo were made before the discovery of the missing pages in the Warsaw Sforziada.

Silverman has stated that the majority of those who have rejected the attribution, including Bambach, Penny and Ekserdjian have not accepted invitations to see the drawing in the original.


While Kemp relies upon an accumulation of pointers (visual, historical and technical) that together result in the case for Leonardo’s authorship, opponents seize on one or more specific aspects of the work that they use to place Leonardo’s authorship in doubt. In Kemp’s method, judgment by eye is one of the more fluid components in reaching a conclusion [31], while those who use connoisseurship as the ultimate tool to dismiss the attribution generally discount the other kinds of evidence. It is unlikely that a complete consensus will be reached in the next few years, given entrenched positions on either side.


  1. ^ The vellum has been carbon dated to between 1440 – 1650, within a 95 % confidence interval. The 1495–96 is the dating by Kemp.
  2. ^ If by Leonardo; see text.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Kemp, Martin; Cotte, Pascal (2010). 'La Bella Principessa'. The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-1-4447-0626-0. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Cotte, Pascal; Kemp, Martin. "La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad". Lumiere Technology. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "New Leonardo da Vinci Bella Principessa confirmed". Lumiere-technology.com. 28 September 2011. Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  4. ^ Turner, Nicholas (September 2008). "Statement concerning the portrait on vellum by Leonardo". Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  5. ^ See Katarzyna Wozniak, The Warsaw Sforziad http://www.bbk.ac.uk/hosted/leonardo/#MM
  6. ^ Katarzyna Wozniak, The Warsaw Sforziad http://www.bbk.ac.uk/hosted/leonardo/#MM
  7. ^ a b c Christie's (1998). "The Head of a young Girl in Profile to the left in Renaissance Dress". Lot 402, Sale 8812 ("old master drawings"). Retrieved 15 October 2009. 
  8. ^ Whiters LLP (16 September 2010). "Bella Principessa and the hazard of expert opinions". 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i Grann, David (July 12 & 19, 2010). "The Mark of a Masterpiece". The New Yorker. LXXXVI (20). ISSN 0028-792X.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. ^ McLean, Jesse (13 October 2009). "$19,000 Portrait Could Be Lost Da Vinci Work". Toronto Star. Retrieved 13 October 2009. 
  11. ^ Pidd, Helen (13 October 2009). "New Leonardo da Vinci painting 'discovered'". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 13 October 2009. 
  12. ^ "La Bella Principessa på plats". svt.se. March 18, 2010. 
  13. ^ "Fingerprint points to $19,000 portrait being revalued as £100m work by Leonardo da Vinci". 12 October 2009. 
  14. ^ "Fingerprint unmasks original da Vinci painting". CNN. 13 October 2009. 
  15. ^ "Finger points to new da Vinci art". BBC News. 13 October 2009. 
  16. ^ Pidd, Helen (13 October 2009). "New Leonardo da Vinci painting 'discovered'". The Guardian (London). 
  17. ^ Adams, Stephen (12 October 2009). "Leonardo da Vinci picture 'worth millions' revealed by a fingerprint". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  18. ^ Hoyle, Ben (13 October 2009). "Unrecognised Leonardo da Vinci portrait revealed by his fingerprint". The Times (London). 
  19. ^ Geddo, Cristina (2008–2009). "Il pastello ritrovato: un nuovo ritratto di Leonardo?". Artes 14: 63–87. 
  20. ^ [1] to "turn-the pages" for the Warsaw copy of the Sforziada
  21. ^ Kemp and Cotte believe the difference in the number of holes is due either to the irregular way in which the margin of the page with the drawing has been cut, or to the addition of two intermediate stitches when the book was rebound.
  22. ^ Esterow, Milton. "The Real Thing?", in ARTnews
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h Dorment, Richard (12 April 2010). "La Bella Principessa: a £100m Leonardo, or a copy?". The Daily Telegraph. 
  24. ^ Alessandro Vezzosi, Nuptial Portrait of a Young Woman
  25. ^ a b Geary, David (April 2, 2002). "An Art Explorer Finds the Real Creator of Works". New York Times. 
  26. ^ Sharpe, Tom. (September 25, 2010). "Case Closed on da Vinci Mystery?". The Santa Fe New Mexican. 
  27. ^ image of the Mannheim drawing


• Alessandro Vezzosi, Leonardo Infinito : La vita, l’opera completa, la modernità, Bologna; Scripta Maneant, (2008). ISBN 978-8-8958-470-54

• Cristina Geddo, "Il pastello ritrovato: un nuovo ritratto di Leonardo?". Artes, (2008–2009). 14: 63–87.

• Martin Kemp, with Pascal Cotte, Leonardo da Vinci: La Bella Principessa: the profile portrait of a Milanese woman, Hodder & Stoughton, (2010). ISBN 1-4447-0626-8, ISBN 978-1-4447-0626-0

• Katarzyna Wozniak, The Warsaw Sforziad, The Leonardo da Vinci Society, Birkbeck College, London

• Mina Gregori, "Un appunto per Leonardo," ) pp. 3–4, Paragone, LXI, (2010).

• Elisabetta Gnigniera, I Soperchi Ornamenti. Copricapi e Acconciature Femminili nell’Italia del Quattrocento, pp. 168–79, Siena, 2010). ISBN 978-88-802441-96

• Peter Silverman with Catherine Whitney, Leonardo’s Lost Princess. Hoboken (NJ), (2010). ISBN 978-04709-364-05

• Martin Kemp, Pascal Cotte, La Bella Principessa di Leonardo da Vinci. Ritratto di Bianca Sforza, Florence: Mandragora, (2012).

       ISBN 978-88-74611-73-7

• Tom O'Neill, Gianluca Colla, Lady with a Secret: A Chalk-And-Ink Portrait May Be a $100 Million Leonardo, National Geographic Magazine, February 2012.

• Martin Kemp with Vittoria Sgarbi, Leonardo da Vinci. Ritratto di Bianca Sforza, “La Bella Principessa, Reggio Emilia; Scripta Maneant, (2014). ISBN 978-88-95847-31-3

• Simon Hewitt, Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom – Bianca Sforza, the Sforziardas and Artful Propaganda in Renaissance Milan (forthcoming)

Literature on the Sforziada

• Bogdan Horodyski “Miniaturzysta Sforzów, Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, Warsaw 1954, pp.195-214, and “Birago, Miniaturiste des Sforza” pp. 251–5 Scriptorum, X, 1956.

• Mark Evans, 'New Light on the "Sforziada" Frontispieces of Giovan Pietro Birago”, pp. 232–47 British Library Journal, XIII, 1987.

• Elizabeth McGrath, “Ludovico il Moro and His Moors”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, pp. 67–94, LV, 2002.

External links[edit]