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Leonardo's Lost Princess: One Man's Quest to Authenticate an Unknown Portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci Hardcover – February 1, 2010
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In Leonardo's Lost Princess, Silverman tells the riveting story of how his initial suspicions of the portrait's provenance grew as one art expert after another confirmed his view that this haunting image was, indeed, created in the fifteenth century, that the artist was certainly left-handed, and that the quality of the work was extraordinarily fine. Few, least of all Silverman himself, were willing to even hint that it was the rarest of all finds, an original masterpiece by the greatest painter in history. More proof was needed, but where could it be found?
Silverman's account of the cutting-edge science used to authenticate the portrait—from radiocarbon dating to multispectral photography—is as fascinating as it is convincing. Not only were scientists able to prove that the materials dated from Leonardo da Vinci's lifetime, an analysis of photos taken of the portrait using thirteen different light spectra revealed beyond doubt that the work was made by the master himself. They also provided hints to the drawing's history over the intervening centuries.
Still, many questions remained unanswered. Who was this poised and beautiful young woman? Why had Leonardo, who was very busy at the time with multiple projects for his patron, the Duke of Milan, and others, spent valuable time making this small and modest portrait in chalk and ink? Where had it been hiding for five centuries? The answers to these questions could only be found through good, old-fashioned research and legwork, which would take investigators from Paris to Milan to, improbably, Warsaw. The answers they found are surprising, revealing, and often moving.
Complete with vivid accounts of the art-world controversy sparked by Silverman's claim, similar controversies over the authenticity of works supposedly by Leonardo, and the very different lives of Leonardo and the lovely young woman who was his subject, Leonardo's Lost Princess is part whodunit, part revealing exposé, and all-enthralling tale of an impossible dream come true.
From the Back Cover
In 1496, a beautiful princess was preparing to marry in Milan. Bianca was the daughter of Duke Ludovico Sforza and betrothed to Galeazzo Sanseverino, commander of the duke's armies. Portraits were often commissioned during the Renaissance to mark major events in a subject's life, and a court artist named Leonardo da Vinci was given the task of memorializing Bianca.
Tragically, the princess died soon after her wedding. Then her portrait, the last evidence of her existence, was also lost.
At a New York City gallery in 2007, Peter Silverman saw a portrait catalogued as "German, early 19th century." Thinking it misattributed and regretting not buying it once before, he scooped it up for a mere $19,000 and began a long quest to discover its origins. He hardly dared utter the "L" word: Leonardo.
Giants in the field of art history and scholarship soon would, though, as the best of connoisseurship was used to authenticate La Bella Principessa. Science would then confirm their judgments. The picture was carbon-dated, digitally examined with multispectral imaging, even scrutinized for fingerprints—and one of Leonardo's was found along with a palm print. Bianca was identified as the subject, and her clothes and hair were matched to those of her period.
Many in the art community still would not believe, but Silverman persisted and, with the help of Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp, discovered its provenance: the tribute book from which the picture had been removed. After more than 500 years the beautiful princess was home again.
The picture is valued at $150 million, but its value to the art world is incalculable—and its story is unforgettable.
Top Customer Reviews
The Beautiful Princess depicts Bianca Sforza, the 14-year old daughter of Leonardo's patron in Milan, whom the painter portrayed as part of a marriage celebration document in 1496 (or, perhaps, in eulogy for her untimely death four months after the marriage). Leonardo worked on vellum, penning dark brown ink to make contours and hatch markings, which complemented a skillful application of red, white, and black chalk. For Leonardo scholars, this technique was unique among the master's media repertoire, although all acknowledge Leonardo's penchant for innovation (most evident, alas, in The Last Supper).
For those who simply enjoy savoring the beauty of the work--and it is astonishing at many levels of consideration, do consider reading both Kemp's book on the subject, published in 2010, La Bella Principessa, and the brief article about the painting in the current (February) issue of National Geographic. Connoisseurs must continue to hope the "drawing/painting" will soon find a place where the public can see it face-to-face, for it is now secured in a Zurich vault.
Given how Kemp was also largely responsible for the very recent addition to Leonardo's canon of the work known as Salvator Mundi, I was surprised that Silverman made no mention of this splendid painting (revealed to be so after a marvelous restoration cleared away a ton of clumsy overpainting), particularly since it is a centerpiece of the current da Vinci show at the National Gallery in London. For highly questionable reasons, ones that border on the edge of how incompetence nurtures arrogance, the National Gallery had refused to include La Bella Principessa in this show. Silverman is right to conclude that the art world lost a wonderful opportunity here to see his Leonardo nestled in the best company--the master's natural family of great works.
The chain of evidence supporting Silverman's extraordinary claim shows how science complements--enhances--art, in ways that rewards the sublime. It represents the extraordinary proof that honors the scientific method, rooted as it is in skeptical inquiry, and gives us confidence that there is a reason, beyond our own sensibility, for the beauty of the painting before us: Leonardo's eye, hand, and mind.
Quest is an apt term here because the experience Silverman shares is a variation of "the hero's journey". The steps of this undertaking as charted by American mythologist Joseph Campbell and others include "the call to adventure," "the road of trials," "the meeting with the goddess," "the ultimate boon," "rescue from without," and "master of the two worlds". As Campbell summarizes, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
However over the top the hero analogy may seem, Silverman's story mirrors the pattern. The very twists and turns Silverman encounters in the course of his quest make for a riveting, instructive and well-written tale.
Leonardo's Lost Princess reverberates with the cultural issues of our day. Christie's, for example, comes across as the auction house that is too big to fail, or at least too self-important to admit the "blatant misattribution" of the Leonardo portrait as a late 19th century German work. There is also the interplay of science and with technologically unadorned expertise. The art connoisseur's judgment alone, sometimes at a glance, was once enough to determine a work's authenticity. This is no longer the case, not only in art but also in medicine and many other fields.
The "new era" Silverman faces has brought science and its best available tools to bear on the question at hand. The scientific method begins with a hypothesis (something believed to be true) and proceeds with a series of steps meant to confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis. It's a measure of Silverman's integrity that he so readily subjected the portrait to this rigorous scrutiny.
As Silverman discovers, however, some of today's best scientific tests are imperfect. Carbon-14 dating and CSI type finger print analysis, for example, have their limits. Science itself is a very human enterprise. Not only are the scientist's tools of observation imperfect; the conclusions the observer draws from the measured results are matters of interpretation. Given these realities, Silverman is wise to call for "...an intelligent collaboration between scholars of art with their well-trained naked eye and scientists who examine them extensively with their specialized techniques."
From beginning to end, the human touch figures prominently in Silverman's odyssey. Silverman's love for beauty opens his heart and mind and enables him to see the portrait for what could be. Inertia, jealousy, ignorance and envy may have caused experts to turn a blind eye to the work. Ultimately, though, admirable human qualities of curiosity, humility, loyalty and perseverance prevailed. Most notably, it is art expert Martin Kemp's "hunch" that plays a pivotal role in the investigative process.
Silverman seems very much in but not entirely of the art world. While noting that "collecting is about passion, money, ego and being the best," he also maintains that art is best appreciated by "seeing not only with the eye but with the heart and soul." His book is the antithesis of the "unappealing elitism" of the art community. Silverman and his co-author, Catherine Whitney, take an inclusive approach in the book, bringing the reader into the story by explaining terms, providing pertinent historical background and disclosing the gamut of personal feelings aroused by the discovery and ensuing investigation.
Leonardo's Lost Princess is itself a find--an entertaining primer for the non-specialist and a thought provoking, up close and personal account for more schooled and experienced readers. One hopes that Silverman has now made another life changing discovery: of his ability to write and teach about art and "life's fleeting grace."
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A real page turner, I read it in one go in 5 hours. Moving, thrilling and well written. A masterpiece!