The Warsaw Sforziad + La Bella Principessa

Biblioteka Narodowa

Alternate Titles:

La Sforziade di Varsavia, Das Warschauer Sforziad und die schöne Prinzessin

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Alternate Titles

La Sforziade di Varsavia
Das Warschauer Sforziad und die schöne Prinzessin

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A rare and valuable Italian incunabulum in Poland and a mysterious, hotly-debated portrait auctioned in New York City in 1998 are connected through the Sforza family and the person of the great Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the artist supposedly responsible for the work. The portrait of a young woman in profile was originally attributed to an anonymous 19th century German artist working in the Renaissance style. However, various stylistic indications point to a much older provenance, and carbon dating of the vellum on which it is pasted indicates that is has to predate the 19th century. A subsequent study of the work by Martin Kemp (b. 1942), a professor of art history at the University of Oxford and a leading expert on the art of Leonardo da Vinci, pointed to the famous polymath as possibly being responsible for the work. Furthermore, he connects it to a rare codex in Warsaw, one of only four surviving specimens of the 1490 Italian edition of the Sforziad, a propagandist poem of praise tracing the deeds of the Sforza. Although Kemp’s hypothesis is hotly debated among art historians, theses interconnected works represent spectacular specimens of late medieval art.

Facsimile editions available


The Warsaw Sforziad + La Bella Principessa

The idea of a newly discovered, previously unidentified painting by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) cannot help but fill one with a sense of the wonder and possibility of life, and more specifically, how many more splendid works of medieval art by great masters are just waiting to be discovered? The painting, measuring 33 x 23.9 cm, was originally identified as a 19th century work by an anonymous German artist, who created a Renaissance style portrait in profile. Since then, it has been identified as being an actual Renaissance portrait, not merely an homage, and furthermore, it has been postulated that it is the work of the great polymath Leonardo da Vinci. Additionally, the portrait may once have been in a copy of the Warsaw Sforziad, as evidenced by some artistic details, similar folio size, and the three holes in the vellum indicating it had once been part of a bound work. Although carbon dating of the vellum indicates that it cannot be from the 19th century and must be older, the Leonardo hypothesis is the source of concerted debate among art historians. Nonetheless, the last disclosed offer for the work was $80 million, which the owner has thus far chosen to decline. This work and the debate swirling around it attest to the fact that the study of medieval art is an ongoing and dynamic field, rather than being dusty and stagnant.

A Case of Mistaken Identity?

The portrait surfaced in 1998 at Christie’s Auction House in New York City and sold for ca. $22,000, a considerable sum for an anonymous work. Its owner, Kate Ganz, then sold the piece in 2007 to Peter Silverman, who suspected that the work was much older than was thought. The work became the focus of a 2010 study titled La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci by Martin Kemp (b. 1942), a professor of art history at the University of Oxford and a leading expert on the art of Leonardo da Vinci. He argued that the work was in fact a Leonardo and that the woman depicted in it was Bianca Sforza, who died in 1496 only months after being wed at the age of 13. It was this study that also first made the connection to the Warsaw Sforziad. These claims are, however, hotly debated, most notably in a 2011 New Yorker article, in which an artist by the name of John Biro revealed his successful attempts to reproduce the painting and have these fakes authenticated. Nonetheless, most scholars seem to accept that the work predates the 19th century, possibly originating from the 1490’s.

A Fabulous Incunabulum

Kemp’s study also first made the connection between the Warsaw codex and the Sforziad. The Warsaw Sforziad is a poem of praise bordering on propaganda enumerating the deeds of the Sforza dynasty and takes the form of an incunabulum, an early printed book originating from before 1501. It is one of only four surviving specimens of the third edition of the work, printed in Milan ca. 1490. Unlike the previous two Latin editions, this is written in lingua florentina, i.e. the Tuscan dialect of Italian. Like many incunabula, these codices consist of printed texts that were then individually embellished with hand drawn initials, miniatures, and frames, as well as a frontispiece. Thus, the text by Giovanni Simonetta (1420-90), a politician and humanist, was laid down by the typographer Antonio Zarotto (1450-1510) and adorned by the miniaturist and engraver Giovanni Pietro Birago, who was active in late-16th century Milan. Originally commissioned by Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-76), later editions were commissioned by Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), called “the Moor”, who was serving as regent for his young nephew Gian Galeazzo Sforza (1469-94). This copy was gifted to Galeazzo Sanseverino (1458-1525), one of Ludovico’s military commanders and husband to Bianca. Therefore, it is likely that the codex was a wedding present, and thus contained the portrait of Bianca. It is believed that the codex later came to Poland with Bona Sforza (1494-1557), who married King Sigismund the Old (1467-1548) in 1518.

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