La belle ferronnière

Portrait d’une dame de la cour de Milan, dit à tort “la belle ferronnière”

She has been locked in a vault for a long time, while her twin sister enjoyed all the attention and glamour in marvelous rooms of French palace. They look much alike, wearing the same jewelry and dresses, though French sister is not as pale. All those years without sun are not good for girl’s skin…

Who is she?

A controversial painting “La belle ferronnière” was sold at Sotheby’s auction in 2010 for a hammer price of1,538,500 USD, three times its estimate price. There is almost a century long controversy surrounding “La belle ferronnière” – both paintings (the one sold at Sotheby’s and the masterpiece in Louvre) share the same name. The title was given to the painting in 17 century and identifies the woman as the wife or daughter of a retailer of iron goods (a ferronnier), also alluding to a reputed mistress of François I married to Le Ferron.
The fact that both paintings look almost identical creates a controversy in itself, especially when the Louvre painting has been attributed to the hand of Leonardo by some specialists. The portrait depicts a young woman, possibly Lucrezia Crivelli, a mistress of Ludovico Sforza of Milan, and most of the experts agree that it should be attributed to the school of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, if not to the Renaissance genius himself.

While French sister enjoyed relatively quiet life of admiration in Louvre for over 500 years, the younger sister (as second “La belle ferronnière” is considered a later copy) traveled a lot and even changed continents. In 1920 it was brought to United States by Harry and Andrée Hahn as a wedding present from Andrée’s Godmother, Louise de Montaut, being previously authenticated by French expert as a work by Leonardo. Shortly after their arrival to US the couple decided to sell the painting to Kansas City Museum, claiming that the deal has been reached for $250,000.
The comment by renowned art expert Joseph Duveen that Hahn’s “La belle ferronnière” was probably a later copy of the original from Louvre, has started a long legal battle involving a number of art experts comparing paintings side by side in Louvre. Though all the experts agreed that Hahn’s painting could not be attributed to Leonardo or his school, the lack of art expertise among American jury seemed to be tipping the scale in favor of Hahn’s claim, especially at the absence of any physical evidence. Duveen chose to settle the case, younger “La belle ferronnière” was locked in the vault, while Louvre’s “La belle ferronnière” enjoyed all the attention. The record was set straight at Sotheby’s showing that a value of art goes up over time, even if it is a copy of a famous original, and beauty would always be in style.

I’m glad that young woman’s reputation has been restored and that she was freed from captivity, though we would probably not see her in person any time soon. Oh well – her sister is still in Louvre.

Read More

Leonardo da Vinci Facts: Mother Caterina

Leonardo_GiacondaReconstruction of Leonardo’s fingerprint gave some clues about his possible ethnicity, according to controversial Italian research. Dermatoglyphics, science that studies skin patterns through computer analysis of data, claims to have found connection between fingerprint patterns and population ethnicity.

So, based on reconstructed fingerprint of Leonardo da Vinci, researchers made a conclusion that he was of Middle Eastern descent. “The fingerprint features patterns such as the central whorl that are dominant in the Middle East.
About 60 percent of the Middle Eastern population display the same dermatoglyphic structure,” according to the anthropologist Luigi Capasso. This gives new evidence to the theory of Alessandro Vezzosi that Leonardo’s mother was not a peasant from Vinci but a slave girl brought to Tuscany from Middle East.

This was quite wide-spread in Italy that slaves, brought from Middle East, Eastern Europe and Balkans, were used in wealthy homes to perform all kinds of duties. An existence of 550 slaves has been documented in Florence at the time of Leonardo’s birth. Alessandro Vezzosi, the director of Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci in the artist’s home town of Vinci in Tuscany, discovered some papers showing that at the time of Leonardo’s birth his father was a craftsman, Ser Piero Da Vinci, and his mother was a female slave known as Caterina.

It was a common practice to baptize slave girls, giving them names like Maria, Caterina, and Marta. The only Caterina that was inside Ser Piero’s circle was a slave in the house of his wealthy friend Vanni di Niccolo di Ser Vanni, whose hand-written will was recently discovered in the archives. It looks like after his death Vanni left his house in Florence to Ser Piero and his slave Caterina to his late wife Agnola. It seems that logically the inheritance should have been switched between two of them. Ser Piero then negotiated freedom for Caterina in exchange for allowing Vanni’s widow Agnola stay in the house and did not take possession of the property until her death.

Caterina was quickly married off to Acchattabriga di Piero del Vaccha da Vinci, I’m guessing, against her will as his name in Italian means “quick to start a quarrel.” There are some theories and speculations that later in life, when Caterina was in her sixties, Leonardo stayed in touch with his mother and she even moved to Milan to be closer to her son. They are based on some encrypted clues found in da Vinci manuscripts called Codex Atlanticus and Codex Forster II. And then there is Mona Lisa that was often called Leonardo’s self-portrait as the features from the two line up eerily perfectly. It is the only painting that he carried with him all his life which wouldn’t be the case with a commissioned portrait.

Could it be the depiction of Caterina?
We probably would never know for sure. Though scientists claimed that they have collected some saliva and traces of food from manuscripts as Leonardo had a habit of eating late at night while working on his notes. So, what’s next? A complete DNA mapping or clones of Renaissance genius?

Read More