Wednesday, July 7, 2010

La Bella Principessa’s cheerleaders have been in touch

I’ve just been sent one of those rude comments that bloggers like me tend to attract from time to time. As usual, it comes from someone called ‘Anonymous’, which indicates that whoever has an axe to grind, they’d prefer not to be identified as the one grinding it.

This most recent communication concerns my comments (here) about the so-called ‘La Bella Principessa’ – an unprovenanced drawing on vellum (above) which some people, including the renowned Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp, are convinced is an autograph work by Leonardo.

I happen to disagree with him, not on forensic grounds, but because, like Carmen Bambach, curator of drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I just don’t think it looks like a Leonardo. That’s not an art historical opinion. It’s just an instinctive response.

But it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not writing in The New Yorker as David Grann just has in a piece of investigative journalism about a shady Hungarian-born Canadian art restorer that seems to cast the whole La Bella Principessa affair as yet another typical art world scam (The Mark of a Masterpiece: The Man who keeps finding famous fingerprints on uncelebrated works of art – New Yorker, 12 July, 2010).

I don’t normally publish rude anonymous blog comments, but I make an exception in this case as the correspondent seems strangely emotionally invested in the whole rum affair, which is itself revealing:

Dear Mr. Flynn, I really think that your comments are so stupid, and that is better (sic) if you go back to school to study art starting from the contemporary might understand something I hope...
Speaking on the Bella Principessa you are not a specialist on Leonardo, and you are not a in title (sic) to judge if the piece is good or not....did you seen it? (sic) Did you kept it in your hands?? (sic) Did you had a look (sic) at the carbon test results and all other analisis?? (sic) Or you are just saying stupid things for attract attention of people on your blog....why you don't proof (sic) that is NOT by Leonardo...come on, tell me something more of what you know...proof that is not a Leonardo and let's talk later....

Well, it’s true, I am not a Leonardo specialist, but the available evidence would suggest that such expertise is not quite as reliable as many assume. It’s also true that I did not kept it in my hands, but David Grann’s New Yorker piece offers more than a suggestion that one or two of those who have kept it in their hands might not be as disinterested as they pretend. Granted, I did not had a look at the carbon test results, or any other analysis for that matter. But again, given the circumstances in which these seem to have been carried out, what value do they have? Very little, it seems. Moreover, once art goes down the road of fingerprint-dusting, DNA analysis, and multi-spectral imaging cameras as the most reliable means of establishing authorship, we’re doomed. It’s not as if these are being marshalled in the cause of art history. Rather it’s the whiff of money at the end of the rainbow.

I cannot prove that La Bella Principessa is not by Leonardo and nor do I have any incentive to do so…unlike those seeking to prove that it is. But I stand by my earlier comments. This is not an autograph work by Leonardo.


Renee said...

Dear Mr. Flynn, =]

I agree with your interpretation of the work. You're right. It doesn't look like a Leonardo.
Ha, maybe your commentor is a forger trying to validate his work.
Martin Kemp's Leonardo expertise isn't on the artist's portraits anyhow.
Unfortunately, some people just can't help but talk with their ass cheeks.

David Packwood said...

Hi Tom- very good point about the dangers of CSI type art history supplanting gut intuition and 'good old fashioned connoisseurship.'

I've been reading Kemp's book, and while the scientific evidence seems compelling, I kept asking myself if I should be persuaded by it. I would rather use the Morellian method than rely on finger prints, though to be fair to Kemp he says in his book that the examination isn't realy 'forensic' since we can't take Leonardo's prints.

I've had dealings with people caught up in the Leonardo storm, but I can only say that they've been polite, wether they agreed with me or not. This flamer is completely out of order- he or she is the one that looks stupid.


David (Art History Today)

Tom Flynn said...

Thanks for your comment, David. I must read Kemp's book. Never has connoisseurship seemed so beleaguered. Something to ponder.
I was most impressed with your Art History Today blog, which I've added to my blogroll.
Did our paths cross at an AAH conference one time? A Sussex University link?
Best wishes,

David Packwood said...

Thanks Tom.

I haven't been to an AAH conference in ages, so we probably haven't met. I did my M.A. at Sussex, though that was years ago!

Watch the blog as I'm just finishing off a post on connoisseurship in the forensic age.