Leonardo Da Vinci: The Beautiful Princess 1495

Leonardo Da Vinci: The Beautiful Princess 1495 – Portrait of a Young Fiancee

Portrait of a Young Fiancee, also called La Bella Principessa “The Beautiful Princess”, is a portrait in colored chalks and ink, on vellum, of a young lady in fashionable costume and hairstyle of a Milanese of the 1490s. Sold at auction in 1998 as an early 19th-century German work, it has since been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci by some experts, including Martin Kemp, who, in 2010, made it the subject of his book La Bella Principessa. The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. Evidence discovered in 2011 accounting for its provenance has strengthened the case for it being by Leonardo.

The attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has been disputed. 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. The current owner purchased the portrait in 2007.

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The original portrait is a mixed media drawing in pen and brown ink and body color, over red, black and white chalk, on vellum, 33 cm x by 22 cm (approximately 13 inches tall and 9 inches wide) which has been laid down on an oak board. There are three stitch holes in the left-hand margin of the vellum, indicating that the leaf was once in a bound volume. 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 1480s. If it is a Renaissance work, it would have been executed between 1480 and 1490.

Print: Leonardo Da Vinci: The Beautiful Princess 1495

Leonardo Da Vinci: The Beautiful Princess 1495


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 volume until the drawing was cut out from the book. The book is known to have been rebound in the 16th century.

The modern provenance of the drawing seems to be known only from 1955 and is documented only from 1998. According to a lawsuit brought by Jeanne Marchig against Christie’s after the drawings 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 Marchigs death.

In 1998, the work was included in a sale at Auction in New York on January 1, 1998, cataloged as Young Girl in Profile in Renaissance Dress, and described as “German School, early 19th Century”. The seller was Jeanne Marchig. It was sold to a New York art dealer for $21,850 (including buyer’s premium). who sold it on for a similar amount in 2007.

Lumiere Technology in Paris performed a multi-spectral digital scan of the work, 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.

The drawing was shown in an exhibition called And there was Light in Eriksberg, Gothenburg in Sweden, and was estimated by various newspaper reports to be worth more than $160 million.

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

Attribution to Leonardo

The first study of the drawing was published by Cristina Geddo. 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 Perreal whom he met in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century. Leonardo acknowledges his debt to Perreal in the Codex Atlanticus. Geddo also points out that the “coazzone” of the sitter’s hairstyle was fashionable during the same period.


In 2010, after a two-year study of the picture, Kemp published his findings and conclusions in a book, La Bella Principessa. The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman. 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.

• The physical and scientific evidence from multispectral analysis and first-hand study of the painting, as described by Kemp, may be summarized as follows:

• The technique of the portrait is black, red and white chalks (trois crayons, a French medium), with pen and ink.

• The drawing and hatching was carried out entirely by a left-handed artist, as Leonardo is known to have been.

• There are significant pentimenti throughout.

• The portrait is characterized by particularly subtle details, such as the relief of the ear hinted at below the hair, and the amber of the sitter’s iris.

• There are strong stylistic parallels with the Windsor silverpoint drawing of A Woman in Profile, which, like other head studies by Leonardo, features comparable 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 coloring 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 coloring in dry chalks.

• The format of the vellum support is that of a v2 rectangle, a format used for several of his portraits.

• 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. It also includes a palm print in the chalk pigment on the neck of the sitter, which is characteristic of Leonardo’s technique.

• The green of the sitter’s costume was originally obtained with a simple diffusion of black chalk applied on top of the yellowish tone of the vellum support.

• The nuances of the flesh tints were also 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 eyes, 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 fluid, precise and rhythmic.

• There have been some re-touchings over the years, most extensively in the costume and headdress, but the restoration has not affected the expression and physiognomy of the face to a significant degree, and has not seriously affected the overall impact of the portrait.

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