La Bella Principessa
In contrast to the page-by-page readings done previously on this blog, this is more like a book review
In the five hundred years since his death in 1519, an extensive bibliography has been devoted to Leonardo Da Vinci, the world’s most famous artist. Every few years, new analytical data or attribution justifies the publication of a few more. In recent decades, over fifty essays and books have been contributed by the contemporary British art historian, Martin Kemp. The very first account, however, written by Giorgio Vasari’s in 1550, arguably remains the most useful and insightful.. As a world renowned expert, Kemp has had the rare opportunity to examine Leonardo’s paintings up close, in private, and outside their display cases of bulletproof glass. Vasari, however, had the opportunity to see them within decades of their creation – back before the darks had darkened, the lights had crackled, and the fugitive colors had fled. Vasari was also about five hundred years closer to oral accounts of life in the princely Italian courts in which Leonardo moved. By Vasari’s account, Leonardo was essentially a courtier, distinguished more by physical beauty, charm, and evident intelligence than by the projects he completed Throughout his account, Vasari repeatedly tells us that Leonardo did not complete very many: “He worked much more by words than by deeds”. Kemp notes that “by the end of his career, he had become a kind of tourist attraction for high level visitors to Francis I’s court in Amboise”.
Kemp’s most recent book, “Living with Leonardo”, might suggest that Leonardo continues to be celebrated more for celebrity than for painting. He focuses more on the tabloid controversies of restoration and attribution than on any thoughtful interpretations of his life’s work. One of the thirty variants of “Salvator Mundi” recently sold at auction for 450 million dollars. Back in 2005, before it was restored and attributed to Leonardo, it sold for less than $10,000. With that much money at stake, a great deal of effort, ingenuity, and occasional skullduggery can be brought to bear. Careful analysis has convinced several experts that another recent discovery, “ La Bella Principessa”, a chalk portrait on vellum, also deserves authentication. Kemp himself wrote a book on its behalf. Major museums, however, are not willing to display it, so the owner has not yet offered it for sale. A variety of lawsuits, diatribes, exposés, and colorful personal attacks inevitably accompany each controversy, all of which makes for entertaining reading. Kemp presents some evidence to support his own judgment in each case, but not really enough to be convincing. So while he tells us that radiographic images of the Louvre’s “Mona Lisa”reveal the alterations made while it was painted, he does not share those images to prove that it was painted prior to the “Isleworth Mona Lisa” whose intransigent owner continues to claim that his Mona Lisa was really painted first.
Trained in the natural sciences before he turned to art history, Kemp has also been interested in how Leonardo’s fifteenth century mind queried the natural world. Without the application of the instruments, mathematics, and scientific procedures that would be developed in the centuries that followed, Leonardo offered a fresh, post-medieval eye on natural phenomena, ranging from optics, to hydraulics, to mechanics, to geology. He could anticipate technologies, like aeronautics, that would come four hundred years later. Yet, once again, Leonardo is more famous for being imaginative than for actually accomplishing anything. He didn’t really make any contributions to the history of science, but he can be a role model for the kind of blue sky thinking that science and technology need to make real progress. That is how he has been presented in the exhibitions aimed primarily at school children, like the one in Seattle that Kemp did in collaboration with philanthropist Bill Gates. The real lesson there, however, might be that presentation is more important than content. Or as marketing professionals always say, “sell the sizzle, not the steak”.
Beneath these discussions of exhibitions and controversies, a sketchy picture of Kemp’s own career and art theory begins to develop. Kemp took a three year diploma at London’s Courtauld Institute – back when that was sufficient to launch a career in art history . Upon graduation, its director, Sir Anthony Blunt, got on the phone and found Kemp his first job. Blunt was an interesting man, serving as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, as well as an undercover agent for the Soviet Union. Just as interesting was Ernst Gombrich, the director the Warburg Institute located less than a mile away. Gombrich’s “Art and Illusion” has become an iconic text in contemporary art theory. Kemp had the opportunity to take a few of his seminars, in one of which he asked “whether content got in the way of our discernment of significant form”. To which Gombrich replied “If a painter was asked to portray a Madonna, I think that is what he meant to do”.
Noting that Gombrich “did not suffer fools gladly”, apparently Kemp accepted that as a terse, and possibly annoyed, affirmation of the obvious. It’s not necessarily foolish to query how a modern viewer’s notion of the Madonna might interfere with how that viewer discerned the forms of a Madonna painted a thousand years earlier. But apparently Kemp felt that Clive Bell’s theory of significant form (1914) had been authoritatively dismissed. Art history could now move forward on a more objective and conceptual basis. In a chapter on “Science and Seeing”, Kemp proposes that it is finally time to “evaluate the status of the various kinds of evidence” used in attribution, and replace the term “connoisseurship” with the less loaded phrase: “judgment by eye”. Such a phrase might apply to reading an electronic scan as well as judging aesthetic quality. No such overall status evaluation, however, is ever offered in this book.
Kemp founded an international project, the Leonardo Lab, to scan all the Leonardo paintings in museum collections with similar equipment and a core of shared technicians. Yet still he does not ignore his own visual response to paintings when first he sees them. When he feels a certain “zing”, he gets more excited about the process of authentication. But why does he pay attention to such fuzzy feelings at all? Isn’t it because he considers himself to be a viewer of sufficient viewing experience and learning ? Isn’t he identifying himself as - gasp - a connoisseur?
Kemp identifies Jonathan Richardson (1667-1745) as one of first advocates of connoisseurship. Richardson, a distinguished painter as well as writer, compiled a long list of critical criteria - but asserted that they were valid only insofar as a viewer accepted them - while viewers were free to use whatever other criteria they preferred. He also asserted that the artist’s supposed intentions were not relevant to evaluation - placing him a bit closer to Clive Bell than Ernst Gombrich, even if he never used the phrase “significant form”. Perhaps Kemp should reconsider whether the tem “connoisseurship” really should be retired, even if he still wants attributions to be refutable by scientifically proven evidence.
As this book might suggest, living with Leonardo is not really about looking at paintings. Leonardo’s largest piece, “The Last Supper” has been in ruins for centuries, while his other paintings are either unfinished, attributed to collaborators, or obscured by heavy, protective glass. The only original shown in America, the portrait of Ginevra de Benci, is underwhelming compared to so many other pieces at the National Gallery. It’s more like an historical curiosity than a work of art.
Making or studying attributions is often how Martin Kemp has lived with Leonardo. It’s a vital concern - but only for specialists, art dealers, and the curators of those major museums that can afford to buy one. For academics , Leonardo can also be the focus of much publishable writing and professional consultation.
For just about everyone else, however, Leonardo mostly serves to exemplify the Renaissance: breath taking creativity combined with an open minded curiosity about nature and a love of beauty -- and perhaps even the androgyny possible in post-medieval life. Leonardo’s own sexual identity remains an open question. He has become a secular avatar of human potential - defying the pessimism of both the Medieval and the Post-Modern world. He has inspired popular songs, best-selling novels, and quite a few goofy theories. Which is all to the good. Compared to our brief lives, the five-hundred years of the post-medieval era is a very long time. Compared to the life of our species, however, it’s the blink of an eye -and there are always plenty of knuckle draggers, pious frauds, or self serving maniacs who threaten to bring back the dark ages. Let’s keep our Renaissance going. Let’s continue to live with Leonardo.