Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Stitching up the Sforzas

This is nothing to do with the topic of the blog, but some recent discussion in the newspapers on this has old books and Poland involved and intrigued me. Art historian Martin Kemp reckons a 330 x 239 mm chalk and ink drawing on vellum originally sold as a nineteenth century art work modelled on something Renaissance is in fact a real Leonardo da Vinci drawing from the 1490s. He's written a book on it. Now that one of the "proofs" of this (a fingerprint) has been called into doubt he's been to Poland to find another. First of all, to my art-interested layman's eye, the drawing DOES look like a rather mechanical product of a much more recent hand than a fifteenth century one, doesn't it? That's what Lucy Vivante thinks too.

Kemp provisionally identified the sitter as Bianca Giovanna (Sforza) di Sanseverino (1482-1496), the illegitimate daughter of Leonardo's great patron, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico (Il Moro) Sforza. She died a few months after her marriage at the age of 13. Now he claims he has proven it by "the title page of the Sforziad, a volume celebrating the Sforzas; symbols in the book show that it was a wedding gift".
"Assertions that it is a forgery, a pastiche, or a copy of a lost Leonardo are all effectively eliminated," Kemp told the Guardian. Earlier this year, he embarked on what he describes as a "needle-in-a-haystack" search for a 15th-century volume with a missing sheet. A clue lay in the stitch-holes along the portrait's left-hand margin, suggesting it had been torn from a luxury-bound volume. But the chances of this volume surviving 500 years were remote, and the chances of it being found even remoter. Against the odds, Kemp tracked the volume down, to Poland's national library in Warsaw; the stitch-holes are a perfect match for those on [the disputed picture]. It is overwhelming evidence, Kemp says, that the portrait dates from the 15th century
well, not it's not. The vellum may have been ripped out of a fifteenth century book, but that does not tell us when something was painted on it.

In any case he's spinning a bit of a yarn about the wild book chase. The volume in question is a copy of Johannes Simonetta's "Commentarii rerum gestarum Francisci Sfortiae" printed in 1490. Only a few copies were printed on vellum, and only four of them exist; Ludovico's copy is in the BM, there is another copy in the French National Library, a damaged one in the Ufizzi and we in Poland have the fourth. This copy seems to have been brought here from Italy By Queen Bona Sforza, who married the Polish king Sigismund August. It then went into the Jan Zamojski library (there is an ownership inscription and library stamp on it) and from there into the national collection. So it has a pretty good collecting history. So when would somebody have cut the picture out with it ending up in what was described as an "Italian frame" but lost to sight? At the hands of Queen Bona and Sigismund? Jan Zamojski? Or while it was still in Italy (very probably the copy of Duke Gian Galezza Sforza [Bona's dad], or maybe Gian Galezza San Severino). It is the latter possibility that got Prof. Kemp so excited, he was the husband of Bianca. So he came to Warsaw hoping the vellum on which the painting had been created came from this volume. Well, we will have to wait for his next book to come out for the information which "symbols in the book show that it was a wedding gift". The only symbols are an illuminated initials and an elaborate border to the beginning of book 1 (which are known to be by Giovanni Pietro Birago and not Leonardo).

More to the point is where Prof. Kemp sees this page as having been excised from. Here the mystery starts. This morning the guardian had a photo showing how the stitching marks line up (left, from this morning's Guardian article). Well, here's a funny thing. The drawing is 330 mm high, shown as fitting in a book whose pages are nine milimetres taller. If the reported measurements are correct, there's been a bit of photoshoppery there. Likewise there is a wormhole on the verso of the page in front of it (which is paper) but no trace on the drawing itself. Also if the drawing is chalk, why is there no transfer onto the back of the paper page in front of it?

This book is available in digital form here. It can be seen that the page in the first Guardian picture is the reverse of the endpaper (turned into a title page by a later owner). The back is blank, the next page too was blank, and only on its verso was the first printed page. The insertion of a portrait precisely here with no dedication or anything, especially if this were a wedding gift, would be highly illogical. But this would be the outer sheet of the first gathering of pages. Gathering 'a' has only two sheets anyway, and the first one is numbered at the bottom 'ai'. Placing the unnumbered sheet with a portrait on it in front of the unnumbered sheet at the front of the gathering containing the introductory letter would mean that there would have been two completely useless blank sheets between gathering 'a' and 'b'.

It seems that somebody worked this out between the first photo being printed and the second being placed in the article (about midday today). This amended version shows the portrait page inserted into the book between gathering 'a' and 'b'. It would therefore correspond to the other end of the unnumbered sheet before gathering 'a', passing behind its four printed pages. This would make more sense, there was the letter, the translator's foreword, then a blank page and then the decorated initial page of the first book.

Except Professor Kemp wants us to believe that after the translator's introduction and facing it, for some reason was inserted a portrait by an artist other than the one who produced the illuminations in the rest of the book (including a portrait on the following page of Francis Sforza) and this portrait has no relation to the preceding text (the translator's introduction) and no dedication. Why was it bound facing the upper cover and not as the verso of that sheet facing the first page of the history? If this book was illustrated for the wedding in the summer of 1496 the book lay somewhere unillustrated six years after its printing, and presumably Leonardo would have then drawn this portrait in the complete book. Is this possible or likely? This would have meant that Ludovico II had initially retained it for himself alongside the one now in the BM, but later decided to present it to his future son-in-law (duke Gian Galazza Sanseverino) with his bride's portrait in it to welcome him into the family.

The problem is that while (as the Guardian's original photo showed) is is possible to believe that something has been taken out of the book just behind the endpage where the upper vellum gathering meets the paper sheets (but is it not more likely that this was a paper sheet?), it is less obvious from the scanned images that anything is missing from behind the verso of the vellum sheet aii. But a question remains, where is the other end of the unnumbered vellum sheet sheet on the verso of which the author's letter is printed? Is it cut off in the spine of the book along the stitching? The description of the book accompanying the digital images does not give any information.

My feeling is that the portrait does not come from the Warsaw volume, though the Polish newspapers have talked about this a bit, there has been no official reaction from the library staff concerning whether they agree that the end of a vellum sheet is missing from the volume.

UPDATE 31 Oct 2011.
Just now I received a grumpy comment from Martin Kemp, complaining that I was discussing the newspaper articles I read, and not "the full evidence" he'd posted as a pdf "on the Leonardo da Vinci Society website and the Lumiere website".
This is very muddled because the author has not taken the trouble to look at the full evidence (not press summaries) pasted on the Leonardo da Vinci Society website and the Lumiere website. Nor has he had the courtesy to contact Pascal Cotte or myself to clarify any of the points. Martin Kemp

A fairly extensive Google search had failed to pick up this material on 28th September , so it's hardly my fault I did not refer to it.

I suspect this is it: La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad, by Pascal Cotte and Martin Kemp (was this undated text really available on 28th September?) make of it what you will. I am still not convinced by the "science". I look forward to the full publication of the evidence.


Unknown said...

Greetings Mr Barford. I am pleased to find another fine blog on antiquities! I am still preparing a plain language summary of the newer findings, but you and your readers may be interested in this more complete appraisal of the original Kemp/Cotte investigation.

I have no personal stake in the case, and do not have an opinion on the piece's authenticity - I'm more interested in the methods used to verify works from this period and the manner in which this is reported. There definitely (and unfortunately) is no consistent standard for such investigations.

The media reporting of the case has been unfortunately somewhat garbled - something I hoped to address in my review. A fuller picture is simply what I was hoping to offer, so at least our astute readers may make a better informed decision.

Kind Regards
H Niyazi

Paul Barford said...

Mr Niyazi, despite the manner in which Prof Kemp sees fit to address me, neither do I nor my readers have any vested interest. I am however very interested in fakery and authenticity issues.

Indeed, let us have that fuller account which shows that that particular drawing was on a particular piece of vellum that came from that particular volume. The case seems to me unproven. "Could have been" is not proof.

What this has in common with the antiquities issue is the damaging lack of a collecting history which shows how it (allegedly) got from the Polish Royal collection or the Zamoyski collection to where it "surfaces" on the market. Was it stolen? Is it a fake? The same questions, aren't they?

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