“La Bella Principessa”, also known as “Portrait of a Young Fiancée”, is a drawing of a young lady, made on vellum using colored chalks and ink. Originally considered an early 19th-century German work, the portrait was recently attributed to the hand of Leonardo da Vinci by Martin Kemp and other noted scholars. The work of art was probably part of a codex now held at the Warsaw National Library, known as “Sforziada” (Sforziad in English).
The Sforziad, a political text for the Sforza family
The Warsaw Sforziad is one of four surviving illuminated copies of the 1490 edition of Giovanni Simonetta’s “Rerum Gestarum Francisci Sfortiae Mediolanensium Ducis”. Printed on parchment, the copy preserved in Warsaw is the only specimen signed by Giovanni Pietro da Birago, the illuminator working for the Milanese court.
The text, in praise of the political exploits of Francesco I Sforza (1401-1466), was written in the 1470s and, within less than twenty years, it was printed three times by the typographer Antonio Zarotto: in 1483 and 1486 in Latin, and in 1490 in Italian (in lingua fiorentina - florentine language). Promoting the editions was Duke Ludovico Sforza “il Moro” (1452-1508) who, as regent for this underage nephew Gian Galeazzo, was the de facto ruler of Milan.
The illuminations are regarded as magnificent treasures of 15th century Lombard art. Despite a common scheme, each of the decorated pages is a separate and integral artwork. The miniature allowed the identification of individual copies, which were addressed to Lodovico il Moro (now at the British Library), Gian Galeazzo (now at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), Lodovico’s son in law and would be successor, the commander of the army of Milan, Galeazzo Sanseverino (now at the National Library in Warsaw) and the Ducal Library in Pavia (a fragment in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence).
Attribution of the portrait to Leonardo
In 2010, Martin Kemp announced the results of his research in a book “La Bella Principessa. The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman”, and he revealed that Bianca Sforza, daughter of Ludovico il Moro, was the woman possibly depicted by Leonardo da Vinci.
A number of evidences led Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte (a French engineer expert in multispectral analysis) to announce the attribution to Leonardo da Vinci. Among them:
- the portrait is made using the “trois crayons” technique (use of three chalk colors: red, black and white), pen and ink;
- the proportions of the head and face follow in details the rules described by Leonardo in his writings;
- major stylistic features are comparable in this portrait and the Windsor silverpoint drawing of “A Woman in Profile”.
Many noted Leonardo scholars, including Carlo Pedretti, Edward Wright (Emeritus of Art History at the University of South Florida), Nicholas Turner (J. Paul Getty Museum), Mina Gregori (Università di Firenze), and Alessandro Vezzosi, (Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci) agreed on the conclusion of Martin Kemp and Pascal Lacotte on the attribution to Leonardo da Vinci.
La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad: originally together
In 2011 Martin Kemp disclosed some new details on his findings, describing the portrait as originally being part of the Sforziad specimen held at the Warsaw National Library. The printed book, with illuminated sections by Giovanni Pietro da Birago, was a gift to Giangaleazzo Sanseverino and Bianca Sforza, his spouse, in 1496.
In Martin Kemp’s words: “[…] it is clear that we have notable set of interlocking reasons to think that we are dealing with Leonardo’s Portrait of Bianca Sforza and that it came from the vellum Sforziada in Warsaw […] The portrait probably remained in the Sforziada for many years, maybe until the 19th century. The story of how it came to be removed […] is presently unknown.”
Dark leather with debossing; a small paper label on the spine.