Thursday 3 December 2015

La Bella Principessa: a Da Vinci or a copy?

The famous British art forger, Shaun Greenhalgh, who was imprisoned between 2007-2012, recently claimed to be the author of La Bella Principessa, a painting attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, with an estimated value of $150 million.

La Bella Principessa (image: Wikipedia)

The attribution to the Italian painter has always been strongly challenged.

The artwork was documented for the first time in 1998, when it was sold at a Christie’s auction as an early 19th century painting created in the style of the Italian Renaissance. The work was auctioned and sold for $21,800.

In 2008, however, some experts concluded that, in fact, the painting was a Da Vinci, and from that time the work was exhibited in Italy as an authentic Da Vinci painting. The portrait, still in private hands, is now widely thought to depict the 13-year-old Bianca Sforza, the daughter of Ludovico Sforza, the Da Vinci patron. The work would have been commissioned on the eve of her marriage in 1496.

This was confirmed in 2010, when Martin Kemp – one of the world's most famous Da Vinci experts, and emeritus professor of the History of Art at Oxford University – published a book entitled "La Bella Principessa: The story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci," which stated that the painting was done by the famous Italian artist. It therefore followed that museums and other experts believed Kemp’s assessment.

Unfortunately, it may be that the Principessa is not be so Bella after all. Most recently, Greenhalgh published a book of his memoirs, entitled "A Forger’s Tale," where he claims to have painted the painting in 1978, when he was working in a Co-op supermarket – with a girl called Sally, a cashier who Greenhalgh claims to have known in Bolton in 1975, being the alleged inspiration behind the girl portrayed in the painting.

This story shows how Leonardo Da Vinci has moved to the centre of an inflated industry of fakes. It is also a cautionary tale that art evaluation cannot be based exclusively on scientific analysis, but should also include human eye and expertise. Indeed, Kemp's authenticity claim of La Bella Principessa rests on testing its papers and materials, which date back at least 250 years ago: post-Da Vinci, but quite before Greenhalgh.

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