It was 2007 when the collector Peter Silvermann purchased a small parchment in a Manhattan gallery for 19 thousand dollars. It had already attracted his attention some years earlier in a Christie’s auction. The attribution to the 19th-century German Nazarene school did not convince him, above all for the refined sensitivity concealed in those delicate pen-and-ink lines.
Silvermann thus began an in-depth study of the work, involving major experts and scholars like Nicholas Turner, formerly keeper in the department of prints and drawings of the British Museum, Martin Kemp, professor of Oxford University and one of the main experts on Leonardo da Vinci, with Carlo Pedretti, emeritus professor of art history at the University of California.
Study of the work brought them all to the same conclusion: it was a small masterpiece by the great Leonardo da Vinci, a theory also supported by the most modern technologies. In fact carbon-14 analysis, which makes it possible to date materials of organic origin, indicated that it comes from a period between 1450 and 1650, while infrared scanning showed stylistic parallels with other works by Leonardo. Finally, the hypothesis was strengthened by evidence that the high anatomical precision of the drawing was the work of a left-handed artist.
The work was then sent to the Lumiére-Technology of Paris, to be examined by the ingenious engineer Pascal Cotte, inventor of a high-resolution multispectral digitisation instrument.
And what came out of it? A fingerprint which is compatible with the one also found in the St. Jerome and the Lady with an Ermine.
Now all that remained was for experts to identify that lovely profile. The dress and bound braid hairstyle, known as coazzone, are recognisable as late 14th-century Milanese court fashion, hence the profile must belong to Sforza court circles, where Leonardo was present for several years, from 1481 to 1499. After various studies, Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte identified the lady as Bianca Sforza (1482- 1496), the illegitimate daughter of Ludovico and his mistress Bernardina de Corradis.
Moreover, the three holes on the left margin suggested that the parchment was part of a bound book, and confirmation that it was the Warsaw Sforziade, a sort of biography of the dukes of Milan, arrived straight from Poland with the definitive proof.
A sensational discovery, then, but there are many sceptics, such as those who, having had the small parchment (whose current value could be over 100 million Euros) within their reach, allowed it to escape their grasp.
Leonardo’s lost princess, by Peter Silvermann and Catherine Whitney, ed. Piemme, 2012
La bella Principessa, by Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte, ed. Mandragora, 2012