La Bella Principessa

La Bella Principessa
English: The Beautiful Princess
A young woman in profile, looking to the left.
Artist attributed to Leonardo da Vinci
Year 1495-6[note 1]
Type Trois crayons (black, red and white chalk), heightened with pen and ink 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"), also known as Young Girl in Profile in Renaissance Dress and 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. In 2010 one of those experts, Martin Kemp, made it the subject of his book La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.[2] Evidence discovered in 2011 accounting for its provenance has strengthened the case for it being by Leonardo; the sheet appears to have been cut from a Milanese book of which the remainder has long been in Warsaw, which comes from the milieu of Francesco Sforza, Leonardo's employer.[3]

The attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has been disputed.[4] Most of those who disagree with the attribution to Leonardo believe the portrait is by an early 19th-century German artist imitating the style of the Italian Renaissance, although recent radiocarbon dating tests show a much earlier date for the vellum. The current owner purchased the portrait in 2007.


The portrait is a mixed media drawing in pen and brown ink and bodycolour, over red, black and white chalk, on vellum, 33 by 23.9 centimetres (10 by 9 in)[5] which has been laid down on an oak board.[2] There are three 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, the usual way in which Italian artists of the 15th century created enduring portraits. 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.[1]


If the drawing is originally a Leonardo illustration for the present-day Warsaw copy of the Sforziad, its history is the same as that of the book until the drawing was cut out from the volume.[6] The book is known to have been rebound at the turn of the 18 and 19th century.[7][8]

The modern provenance of the drawing is known only from 1955 and is documented only from 1998.[9] 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 her husband's death.[10]

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".[9] The seller was Jeanne Marchig.[2] It was sold to a New York art dealer for $21,850[2] (including buyer's premium).[9] who sold it on for a similar amount in 2007.[4]

Lumière Technology in Paris performed a multi-spectral digital scan of the work,[11] and in 2009 the spectral 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.[4][12]

The drawing was shown in an exhibition called And there was Light in Eriksberg, Gothenburg in Sweden,[13] and was estimated by various newspaper reports to be worth more than $160 million.[14][15][16][17][18][19]

Reflecting the subject of an Italian woman of high nobility, Kemp named the portrait La Bella Principessa, although Sforza ladies were not princesses.[1]

Attribution to Leonardo

A portrait by Alessandro Araldi 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.
A page of La Sforziada from the National Library of Poland (Biblioteka Narodowa) in Warsaw

The first study of the drawing was published by Cristina Geddo.[20] 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 trois crayons technique). Leonardo was the first artist in Italy to use pastels, a drawing technique he had learned from the French artist Jean Perréal whom he met in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century. Leonardo acknowledges his debt to Perréal in the Codex Atlanticus. Geddo also points out that the "coazzone" of the sitter's hairstyle was fashionable during the same period.

Expert opinions

A number of Leonardo experts and art historians have concurred with the attribution to Leonardo, including:


In 2010, after a two-year study of the picture, Kemp published his findings and conclusions in a book, La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.[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 and 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,[1] may be summarized as follows:

Warsaw copy of the Sforziada

In 2011, Kemp and Pascal Cotte reported that there was evidence that the drawing had once been part of a copy in the National Library of Poland in Warsaw of the Sforziada.[25] This is a printed book with hand-illuminated additions containing a long propagandistic poem in praise of Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan and patron of Leonardo da Vinci, and recounting the career of Ludovico Sforza’s father Francesco and his family. The Warsaw copy, printed on vellum with added illumination, was given to Galeazzo Sanseverino, a military commander under Ludovico Sforza, on his marriage to Bianca Sforza in 1496.[3] Kemp and Cotte identified a sheet in this volume from which they believe the drawing was cut. The cut edge of the sheet itself is concealed by the binding, but Kemp and Cotte say that, although "the dimensions and precise locations of the holes in the portrait cannot be obtained with precision", the three holes on the left-hand side of the drawing can be aligned with three of the five stitch holes in the sheets in the book.[2][26]

The association with the Sforziada suggests 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. Leonardo painted three other portraits associated with the family or court of Ludovico Sforza.

The Polish scholar Bogdan Horodyski in 1954-1956, reached the conclusion that the Warsaw illumination refers to both the deceased Dukes Galeazzo Maria and Gian Galeazzo and to the dynastic downfall after the usurpation of Ludovico il Moro. The reproduction of the unpublished heraldic figure attributed to Antonio Grifo, illuminated in the incunabulum "Comedia" by Dante (Cremonese, Venice 1491) now at Casa di Dante in Rome, shows the original coat of arms and insignia of the family of Galeazzo Sanseverino, and the comparison with those illuminated by Birago is not corresponding. Developing this hypothesis, Carla Glori suggests that Caterina Sforza, the daughter of Galeazzo Maria and half-sister of Gian Galeazzo, was the owner of the Warsaw Sforziad and that she gave it to the family of her deceased half-brother between 1496-1499.[27]

Disagreement with attribution to Leonardo

The attribution to Leonardo has been challenged by a number of scholars;[4][24][28] 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.

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[28] – and the fact that it was on vellum. Leonardo did not use vellum for any of his 4,000 surviving drawings,[28] and old sheets of it are easily acquired by forgers.[4] 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.[28] Marani is also troubled by use of vellum, "monotonous" detail, use of colored pigments in specific areas, firmness of touch and lack of craquelure.[28] 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.[28] 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."[28]

Drawing of a woman by Leonardo. A stylistic similarity has been noted between this drawing and the Bella Principessa.[22]
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 drawings, wrote that he suspects the work is a "counterfeit".[4] 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.[4][28]

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.[4] 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.[4] When asked if he may have been mistaken to suggest that the fingerprint was Leonardo's, Biro answered "It's possible. Yes."[4]

Noting the lack of mention of dissenting opinion in Kemp's publication, Richard Dorment 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."[28]

Fred R. Kline, an independent art historian known for discoveries of lost art by the Nazarene Brotherhood,[29] a group of German painters working in Rome during the early 19th century who revived the styles and subjects of the Italian Renaissance,[29] proposed one of the Nazarenes, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872), as the creator of the drawing.[30] Kline suggests that a drawing on vellum by Schnorr, Half-nude Female, in the collection of the Kunsthalle Mannheim in Germany,[31] 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.

Comparative material-testing of the vellum supports of the Mannheim Schnorr and La Bella Principessa were anticipated to occur in the New York federal court lawsuit Marchig v. Christie's, brought in May 2010 by the original owner of La Bella Principessa, who accused Christie's of breach of fiduciary duty, negligent misrepresentation and other damages. However, the court dismissed the suit on the ground that the claims were brought years too late, and thus the merits of the suit were never addressed. The district court decision was upheld on appeal.[32]

Disagreements with the attribution to Leonardo were made before the discovery of the missing page in the Warsaw Sforziada book. No alternative attribution has been accepted by Kemp or his research group. No comparative scientific analysis has been made of the vellum supports in question: the Warsaw Sforziada book, the Mannheim Schnorr (an alternate attribution), and La Bella Principessa. Independent analysis of the vellum could possibly provide the conclusive evidence that may support or disqualify Leonardo's or Schnorr's authorship.

In November 2015, notorious art forger Shaun Greenhalgh claimed that he created the work in 1978, at the age of 20; Greenhalgh said the woman's face is that of a supermarket check-out girl named Alison who worked in Bolton, outside Manchester.[33][34] In his memoir A Forger’s Tale, written in prison, Greenhalgh claims to have forged the painting by obtaining an old piece of vellum from a reused 1587 land deed. Kemp said he found the claim hilarious and ridiculous,[35] noting that the painting was made with pre-17th century chalk and stating that it's "hugely unlikely" that Greenhalgh would have been able to obtain sufficient old pigment."[36]


  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. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Kemp, Martin; Cotte, Pascal (2010). La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-1-4447-0626-0.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Cotte, Pascal; Kemp, Martin. "La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad" (PDF). Lumiere Technology. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
  3. 1 2 "New Leonardo da Vinci Bella Principessa confirmed". 28 September 2011. Retrieved 2013-07-23.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 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)
  5. 1 2 Turner, Nicholas (September 2008). "Statement concerning the portrait on vellum by Leonardo" (PDF). Retrieved 19 November 2012.
  6. See Katarzyna Wozniak, The Warsaw Sforziad
  7. Katarzyna Wozniak, The Warsaw Sforziad
  8. Katarzyna Woźniak, La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad. Circumstances of Rebinding and Excision of the Portrait
  9. 1 2 3 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.
  10. Whiters LLP (16 September 2010). "Bella Principessa and the hazard of expert opinions" (PDF).
  11. McLean, Jesse (13 October 2009). "$19,000 Portrait Could Be Lost Da Vinci Work". Toronto Star. Retrieved 13 October 2009.
  12. Pidd, Helen (13 October 2009). "New Leonardo da Vinci painting 'discovered'". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 13 October 2009.
  13. "La Bella Principessa på plats". March 18, 2010.
  14. "Fingerprint points to $19,000 portrait being revalued as £100m work by Leonardo da Vinci". 12 October 2009.
  15. "Fingerprint unmasks original da Vinci painting". CNN. 13 October 2009.
  16. "Finger points to new da Vinci art". BBC News. 13 October 2009.
  17. Pidd, Helen (13 October 2009). "New Leonardo da Vinci painting 'discovered'". The Guardian. London.
  18. Adams, Stephen (12 October 2009). "Leonardo da Vinci picture 'worth millions' revealed by a fingerprint". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  19. Hoyle, Ben (13 October 2009). "Unrecognised Leonardo da Vinci portrait revealed by his fingerprint". The Times. London.
  20. Geddo, Cristina (2008–2009). "Il pastello ritrovato: un nuovo ritratto di Leonardo?" (PDF). Artes. 14: 63–87.
  21. Pedretti, Carlo (2008). "introduction to Alessandro Vezzosi, Leonardo Infinito, Scriptamaneant Editzioni – Bologna, Italy" (PDF).
  22. 1 2 Alessandro Vezzosi, Nuptial Portrait of a Young Woman
  23. 1 2 Silverman, Peter (August 2, 2010), "Re: The Mark of a Masterpiece – A letter in response to David Grann's article (July 12 & 19, 2010)", The New Yorker': 3
  24. 1 2 Esterow, Milton. "The Real Thing?", in ARTnews
  25. to "turn-the pages" for the Warsaw copy of the Sforziada
  26. 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.
  27. Glori, Carla, “The Illumination by Birago in the Sforziad incunabulum in Warsaw: in defence of Horodyski’s thesis and a new hypothesis”,
  28. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Dorment, Richard (12 April 2010). "La Bella Principessa: a £100m Leonardo, or a copy?". The Daily Telegraph.
  29. 1 2 Geary, David (April 2, 2002). "An Art Explorer Finds the Real Creator of Works". New York Times.
  30. Sharpe, Tom. (September 25, 2010). "Case Closed on da Vinci Mystery?". The Santa Fe New Mexican.
  31. image of the Mannheim drawing
  32. Marchig v. Christie's Inc., 762 F. Supp. 2d 667 (S.D.N.Y.), aff'd in relevant part, 2011 WL 2685608 (2d Cir. Summary Order July 12, 2011).
  33. Reyburn, Scott (December 4, 2015). "An Art World Mystery Worthy of Leonardo". The New York Times. Retrieved December 6, 2015.
  34. "'It's not a da Vinci, it's Sally from the Co-op'". The Sunday Times.
  35. Kemp, Martin (29 November 2015). "La Bella Principessa is a "forgery"!!!". Martin Kemp's This and That.
  36. "Could Leonardo's Bella Principessa be Greenhalgh's Bolton Sally?". The Art Newspaper. 30 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015.


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