Maybe it is not a painting by Leonardo, but it is certainly a portrait of Isabella

As an art historian, specialized on Isabella d'Este, I've been asked by the local press to share on the "Gazzetta di Mantova" my first opinions about a recently found painting, thought to be a portrait of Isabella painted by Leonardo. Here's a translation of my article in English. 

Lorenzo Bonoldi

It is well known that Leonardo da Vinci had started working on a portrait of Isabella d'Este. And, thanks to ancient documents, we also know that in the year 1500 Leonardo created two preparatory drawings, and a third version of the sketch was requested - and probably made - in 1501. 

THE COPIES OF THE DRAWING - Today six copies of the drawing are known: one in the Louvre, one in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, one in the British Museum, one in the Uffizi, and  two other copies of the Staatliche Sammlung Graphisches of Monaco of Bavaria.

However, amongst all many copies, only the one preserved in the Louvre in Paris is unanimously attributed by critics to the hand of Leonardo.

Such abundance of copies should be able to satisfy all the “fans of the Marchioness” – an expression created by Giovanni Agosti to describe all those scholars – like me –  madly in love with Isabella d'Este. But, actually, this is not enough: all of us, Isabella’s fanatics, are keeping a secret dream in our hearts. The same dream that Isabella d'Este pursued for so many years: see that profile, drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in charcoal, eventually turned into a real painting. 

THE PAINTING  - And what’s the better place to hold a secret dream, if not a security storage in Switzerland? And so, right there, in a Swiss deposit, amongst a collection of hundreds of pieces, the dream - or perhaps a mirage? – has come true. The news is fresh, and from the Italian press it was spread on the international newspapers. A sensational title was on “Sette", the magazine of Corriere della Sera: "Found after 500 years, the wonderful portrait by Leonardo da Vinci did for Isabella d'Este." And many people ask: "Really?". According to Carlo Pedretti the answer is "Yes". It has been reported that the opinion of this expert of Leonardo is favorable: the scholar sees with certainty, at least in the face of the portrait, the hand of the master. 

SURVEYS - The originality of the painting would seem to be also proven by scientific investigations. Amongst them also the famous test on carbon 14. However, in this case, cautions  are a must: the C14 dating indicates a very extensive period of time, between 1460 and 1650. And the examination provides with a dating of the materials with which the painting was done, not its execution. To put it briefly: the examination shows that the plants from which the oils used to paint the picture were derived, as well as the fibers of the canvas on which the portrait is painted, were alive between 1460 and 1650. 

A PORTRAIT TURNED INTO A SACRED IMAGE - Let's have a look at this mysterious portrait of Isabella. Same pose of the preparatory drawing, same profile, same type of dress. But there are also some differences:  a crown on her head, a palm leaf in her hand and a foreground object that looks like a wheel. In short: all the iconographic attributes of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.  The only missing thing is the halo. So this is a painting of Isabella d’Este dressed as Saint Catherine on the occasion of a strange Sacred Representation on Carnival? No: it seems that the palm leaf, the crown and the wheel - if it is a wheel – have been overpainted details, added at a later time in the aim to turn the portrait into a sacred image. This a practice it is pretty frequent in the history of art. An element proving this is an examination of the fluorescence, which – according to what the press reported  - has shown a closed book, painted under the added Saint Catherine’s wheel. This is an extremely interesting element: a closed book, in fact, is barely visible in the cartoon of the Louvre.

It’s good to remind that the drawing in the Louvre is more properly a cartoon in as much as the lines of the design are covered in a thick series of pinpricks which demonstrate how it had been prepared to transfer its outline onto another surface, using the technique of the 'spolvero' (pouncing).

THE CLOSED BOOK – With the passing of time, unfortunately, many details of the lines drawn by Leonardo went fading, but the series of pinpricks has preserved a clear trace of the original design by Leonardo: the closed book (a symbol of full knowledge),  that scientific investigations have shown under the " wheel "of the painting Swiss cardboard is also present in the Paris cartoon. And in the Oxford replica as well.

This is not the only element "disappeared" from the Louvre cartoon that comes back in the painting recently rediscovered. The lines of holes in the sheet also show that in the Paris cartoon the head of Isabella was covered by a veil. As in the Swiss painting. 

Also the v-neck shirts in a thin semitransparent fabric, covering the chest of the Marchioness appears in the Louvre cartoon. All these elements not only prove that the painting found in Switzerland comes from Leonardo's cartoon, but also that his maker has had in his hands the carton in ancient times, before these details started fading. 

PUPILS OF THE MASTER – This does not means that the painting recently found in Switzerland has been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. As I have recently demonstrated in my article appeared in the September issue of “Art and Dossier”, the italian magazine directed by Philippe Daverio, the Parisian cartoon has been used by one of the pupils of Leonardo to create one of the two musician angels, painted in the side panels of the Virgin of the Rocks. This clearly demonstrate that Leonardo's pupils had access to the cartoons of the Master, and in particular to the one for the portrait of Isabella d'Este.

Considering all of these elements, I do not think that, today, it is possible to say certainty “this painting is by Leonardo da Vinci”: the evident connection with the preparatory drawing, is not enough.

Along with the rest of the scholarly community – and with all the "fanatics of Isabella" – I will be patiently waiting for the opportunity to know all the results of the scientific investigations, hoping that others detailed images of the painting will be soon published, accompanied by x-rays, reflectographies and luminescence exams. 

NEC SPE NEC METU What, however, I feel I can say without hope and without fear (Nec spe nec metu, to quote one of the mottos of the Marchioness) is that the profile in the Swiss painting is the profile of Isabella d'Este.

And to, tell the truth, I have a hope in my heart: that this portrait of Isabella - if not by Leonardo, at least leonardesque - can soon arrive in Mantua for an exhibition. This would be an excellent opportunity, both for scholars and tourists. And the Marchioness would be very happy: the most ancient of her mottos, whose a record is preserved, is “so that I will live after death”. And, after centuries, we are still here, talking about her, and hoping to see - in Mantua! - her portrait. 
Lorenzo Bonoldi 
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