February 10, 2015

"Portrait of Isabella d'Este" attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci siezed in Lugano, Switzerland.

By Lynda Albertson and Stefano Alessandrini

A painting, the ”Portrait of Isabella d'Este, attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, has been recovered in Lugano, Switzerland as the result of a complex joint-operation involving the Italian Public Prosecutors in Pesaro, the Guardia di Finanza of Pesaro and the Ancona squad of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale in cooperation with Swiss law enforcement authorities who executed a seizure request for International Judicial assistance (Letters rogatory).

The lengthy case investigation began in August 2013 when investigators in Italy identified that an attorney in Pesaro had been contracted to quietly sell the painting, purportedly held in a Swiss bank vault,  on behalf of an Italian family for no less than 95 million euro.

The portrait had created an international stir earlier when Professor Carlo Pedretti, Armand Hammer chair of Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) attributed the artwork to Leonardo Da Vinci.  Dr. Pedretti had matched the painting to an acknowledged sketch drawn by Da Vinci in 1499 or 1450 which depicts Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua.  This chalk on paper portrait hangs on view at the Louvre Museum in Paris and was likely sketched by Da Vinci when he was on his way to Venice from Mantova.  There is also a similar one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which are the only two confirmed likenesses of her by the artist.

A second world acknowledged expert on Renaissance man and Leonardo, Dr. Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Trinity College, Oxford, doubted the likelihood that this painting was an actual work of art by da Vinci stating that “canvas was not used by Leonardo or anyone in his production line."

If the authentication of the painting is correct, it will be a historic discovery.  Of the generally-accepted twenty-three major extant artworks attributed to Da Vinci the medium of choice has always been wooden boards, frequently of poplar or paper.  But regardless of the disputed attribution, it  appears that the painting was illegally exported from Italy without benefit of a  proper export license and while it is not clear yet if the family moved the painting to Switzerland for fear of theft or for fear of taxes, its removal severely violates Italian law.
Italy's strict rules requires that any work of art that is more than 50 years old and made by an artist who has died requires a license if it is to be exported.  This holds true for temporary moves as well as permanent sales which makes the lack of paperwork on this artwork noteworthy and highly suspect.  Italy's law art the movement of artworks was passed in 1939 specifically to prevent the country's masterpieces of ancient and Renaissance art from leaving its borders.

Back in Italy, it is expected that the oil of canvas painting will undergo further evaluation to determine if the work should be confirmed conclusively as being attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci or "in the style of".  The painting, measuring 61x46.5 cm assuredly matches the chalk on paper sketch of the Marchioness of Mantua in the Louvre and she is known to have written two letters to Da Vinci, though both were requesting artworks depicting a young Christ.

Isabella d'Este, was a collector of antiquities, a patron of art, and one of the most fashionable and powerful women of the Italian Renaissance.  A patron to other important painters including Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, and Titian, so it would not be unlikely that a request for a portrait might also have made during their acquaintance.  One potential clue in the paintings favor occurred in 1517.  While in France, Da Vinci showed a series of paintings to Cardinal Luigi d'Aragona. On October 11th, at Blois Castle, de Beatis commented on two portraits, one referencing “a certain lady of Lombardy” which could be d'Este along with a passing reference to a certain Signora Gualanda.

The spell of Leonardo and his mysterious women continues.