In 2008, The New York Times published an article announcing what had been a rumour in art historical circles, i.e., the discovery of a new Leonardo painting. A work by Leonardo da Vinci is, of course, the ultimate cultural possession and, not surprisingly, the news stirred the waters among art lovers, collectors, auctioneers, etc. A legal case added to the drama. An expert at Christie’s, the well-known auction house, had misidentified the painting as a nineteenth-century German work in the 1990s. The then owner had agreed, as a result, to sell for less than 15 000 dollars. Understandably, she was greatly incensed when she realized she had very likely lost a Leonardo worth more than 150 million.
Respected Leonardo authorities such as the Oxford scholar Martin Kemp agreed with the Leonardo attribution. In his Living with Leonardo (2018), Kemp describes how his heart “would generally sink on receiving messages from owners of supposed Leonardos,” but this time it was different. There was talk of exhibiting the painting for the first time at the Albertina in Vienna, but the director of the museum felt unconvinced. The quarrel over the Leonardo attribution is still going on and, having in mind the money involved, it is bitter indeed. The question about the identity of the figure is also open.
Who is “la bella Principessa” (the beautiful princess), as Kemp called her? The most likely view is that this is a portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza (1472-1510), the niece of Ludovico Il More, the Duke of Milan and the second wife of the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I. So, “la bella Principessa” was very possibly no less than a Holy Roman Empress. Her marriage to Maximilian triggered the Italian Wars, as it angered France. It didn’t do wonders for her personal happiness either.
Maximilian would attest to Bianca’s good looks – in the context of complaining of her lack of intelligence. He would frequently say that, while prettier than his first wife, Bianca had little to show in the way of “wisdom” (not “wise” must have been the polite way of calling someone stupid at the time). It seems that Bianca’s expertise in needlework – as with many other girls, this had been the main focus of her education - went unappreciated. There was, though, one common feature that Maximilian’s wives shared – both brought him enormous dowries and extended his imperial domain (over Milan in the case of Bianca).
Even after his financially successful marriages, Maximilian was constantly short of money. He would regularly leave Bianca as a security at an inn when he could not pay for his rooms. To give, say, your horse, as a guarantee for your debts was common enough. To leave your wife behind must have been quite extreme even in the era before women’s rights. Maximilian clearly took the view that a horse was an obviously useful possession, while poor Bianca serves no purpose at all. One doesn’t want to think that the pretty, sensitive girl in Leonardo’s fine portrait was treated so shabbily.