In late 1499, as the French army closed in on Milan, Leonardo da Vinci joined the exodus from the city. On his way to Venice, the great Renaissance artist found refuge in the northern Italian city of Mantua, the political and artistic hub of Lombardy, as the guest of noblewoman Isabella d’Este. Before leaving Mantua, da Vinci made a charcoal sketch of the aristocrat, one of the most influential women of the Renaissance and a devout patron of the arts, and in the ensuing years, d’Este regularly wrote to the artist to implore him to paint a color portrait based on the sketch.
While the sketch ended up in Paris in the collection of the Louvre, no painting of d’Este ever surfaced. For centuries, art historians have debated about what happened to the portrait or whether da Vinci had ever painted it at all. Some scholars speculated that the artist ran out of time to paint d’Este before his death in 1519 or perhaps lost interest in the project.
According to a report last week in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the answer to the 500-year-old mystery may have been discovered locked inside a bank vault in Switzerland. The Milan-based newspaper reported the portrait had been found among a private collection of 400 paintings owned by an Italian family who asked not to be identified. The portrait of d’Este was likely purchased by the grandparents of the current owners more than a century ago. Suspicions that the painting could be a genuine da Vinci led to scientific research that began three-and-a-half years ago.
Carbon dating conducted by a mass spectrometry laboratory at the University of Arizona confirmed that there was a 95.4% likelihood that the artwork had been painted between 1460 and 1650. Examination of fragments taken from the work showed that the portrait’s pigments match those used by da Vinci and that the primer was prepared according to the same recipe detailed by the master.
Scholars suspect da Vinci may have completed the portrait after encountering d’Este again in Rome in 1514. The richly colored portrait of the Italian noblewoman is a 24-by-18-inch oil on canvas. It is a faithful transposition of the sketch at the Louvre. The subject’s posture, hairstyle and dress are almost identical. She bears the enigmatic smile that lingers on the lips of da Vinci’s subjects, such as the iconic Mona Lisa. The golden tiara on d’Este’s head and the palm leaf she holds like a scepter are details not found in the sketch and thought to have been added by da Vinci’s students.
Carlo Pedretti, a professor emeritus of art history at the University of California Los Angeles who is considered to be the world’s foremost da Vinci scholar, vouched for the painting’s authenticity. “There are no doubts that the portrait is the work of Leonardo,” he told Corriere della Sera. Pedretti said he immediately recognized the master’s hand at work, “particularly in the woman’s face,” but he added that a few more months were needed to determine which portions of the painting might have been added by da Vinci’s students.
There is still debate as to whether the newly discovered painting is indeed an authentic da Vinci. Some speculate that the portrait could have been made by one of the many artists in northern Italy who copied the master’s works, and Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Oxford University, pointed out to London’s Daily Telegraph that da Vinci favored painting on wooden panels, not canvas.
What isn’t subject to debate is that if the portrait is determined to be authentic, the discovery would be a lucrative one. With fewer than 20 artworks existing that have been attributed to da Vinci, the portrait of d’Este would be worth tens of millions of dollars.