Sunday, February 26, 2012

Battle of Carnival and Lent

Carnival is the unofficial name given to the period of the ecclesiastical calendar that comes between the Feast of the Epiphany (the Twelfth day of Christmas) and Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent).  Its name derives from “carne” the Latin word for meat/flesh-- a reference to the fact that this would be the last time observant Catholics could eat meat before the 40 days (not counting Sundays) of abstinence and sobriety that leads up to Easter.  It is popularly held that carnival means “a farewell to the flesh”although a better rendering might be “taking away of flesh.” There is also a uniquely English term for the season, “Shrovetide,” which is seldom used today and which sounds like it would be much less fun (indeed, “shrove” is a reference to the sacrament of confession).

The Church’s official stance on the celebration of carnival has always been ambivalent: the Catholic Encyclopedia states that “it is intelligible enough that before a long period of deprivations human nature should allow itself some exceptional license in the way of frolic and good cheer,” yet at various times the Church has attempted to curb the excessive licentiousness and disorder of carnival celebrations.  In addition to concerns about revellers indulging vices such as gluttony, binge-drinking and-- most serious of all-- lust/sexual misconduct, carnival celebrations could also take on a disturbingly anti-establishment tone.  Much like the Feast of Fools (described at the beginning of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris where Quasimodo is crowned King of Fools), carnival was a time when society could be turned upside down: institutions such as the aristocracy, the monarchy and the church itself might be held up as the subjects of jest which might even go as far as  send-ups of authority figures such as the king and the pope.  It’s likely that, on most occasions, this was all done in good fun, but there’s no doubt that at times genuine societal tensions, grievances and revolutionary/anti-clerical sentiments came to the surface.  

This political aspect can still be seen in some celebrations today; in New Orleans, for example, some of the krewes organize parades in the days before Mardi Gras with satirical themes.  In 2006-- the first Mardi Gras celebration after Hurricane Katrina-- there were many floats that skewered the government for its mismanagement of the natural disaster as well as humorous references to common hardships, such as residents having to throw their refrigerators (full of rotting food after months without electricity) to the curb.

Around the turn of the 16th century, some Europeans began to mark the changing of the ecclesiastical seasons by staging a joust between Carnival and Lent personified.  This symbolic struggle had been represented in literature long before people began acting it out (see Chapter 2 “Modes of Representation” in Rabelais’ carnival: text, context and metatext by Sam Kinser).

There are several paintings by artists of the Dutch/Flemish Renaissance that depict this allegorical war between Carnival and Lent.  Among the earliest depictions: in Florence, a now lost, tempura-on-linen work  by an unidentified Flemish artist was listed among the valuables seized when the Palazzo Medici was ransacked in December 1494.  In November of that year, the Medicis had been driven into exile after the commission of a major political blunder by the head of the family, known to history as Piero il Fatuo (“Peter the Foolish” -- 1472-1503).  After their departure, the most powerful faction in the city were the followers of the firebrand, fundamentalist monk Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498).  In 1497 they organized the Bonfire of the Vanities where luxury goods, clothing and furniture were set ablaze together with priceless works of art by Renaissance masters that were deemed immoral (in particular works containing nudity or themes from Classical mythology).  Interestingly enough, the bonfire took place on Mardi Gras day.

Also lost is a depiction of the Battle between Carnival and Lent painted by the enigmatic Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516).  Fortunately several copies painted in the 16th-century survive-- one of which can be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.   In this copy especially, one can see traces of the surreal/allegorical/esoteric (?) elements that characterize much of Bosch’s work.  The inscription at the bottom of the painting reads “This is the dance of Luther with his nun”-- a (seemingly disapproving) reference to Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora which could not have been made by Bosch who died a year prior to the publication of the 95 theses.

But by far the most famous painting of the Battle of Carnival and Lent is the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder  (1525-1569), a Dutch painter influenced by Bosch, whose work includes several famous imaginings of the Tower of Babel.  Here we see Carnival represented by a fat man riding a beer barrel with a pie as a hat and a skewer of meats serving as his lance, while “Lady Lent” is a gaunt man cross-dressing as a nun, brandishing a baker’s paddle with two herrings strapped to it.  There are many elements in Brueghel’s painting which cast the vices and excess of carnival in a negative light, but the observers of Lent do not get off scot-free either: it is likely their ostentatious display of piety and self-denial and the very public acts of alms-giving performed by the wealthy were meant to appear hypocritical (Matthew 6:1-- From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount--  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven”).  The painting is often interpreted as a  satire of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants.  As for who represents whom, I can think of arguments either way: is it the decadent Catholics battling the sincerely pious Protestants? Or-- more likely-- are the merry revellers the Protestants, rebelling against the solemn (hypocritical?) rites of the Catholic Church.  If we believe that Brueghel’s portrayal of both groups is less-than-favorable than perhaps he is criticising or poking fun at both sides of the Reformation while remaining neutral.

Incidentally, Martin Luther himself (1483-1546) addressed the topic of Lent in his sermons.  He rejected the contemporary observance of Lent as a “good work,” meant to atone for sins and obtain grace, as a mockery and a perversion (for Luther salvation could only come through faith).  Yet, Luther leaves open the idea of Lenten fasting as a means of subjugating the flesh (i.e. exercising discipline over the body and curbing one’s sensual/material desires through abstention/renunciation).

Another interesting (later) depiction of the Battle, painted by Jan Miense Molenaer (1610-1668) during  the Dutch Golden Age, can be found at the Indiana Museum of Art.  In the foreground of this painting we see a Spanish officer choking a Dutch boy-- a reference to the Low Countries’ struggle for independence.

Finally, the first reference I saw to the Battle of Carnival and Lent came from the soundtrack to the movie Bleu (the first film in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois Coleurs trilogy, starring Juliette Binoche).  Music plays an important role in the film’s plot, and the score by Zbigniew Preisner includes unforgettable pieces such as “The Song for the Unification of Europe” and the “Van den Budenmayer Funeral Music.”  The film also contains two short pieces entitled “The Battle of Carnival and Lent” and “The Battle of Carnival and Lent II.”  In the first of these in particular, one can hear two themes-- a relatively understated passage from the Unification and the much more dire strains of the Funeral Music-- competing for ascendancy.  

I remember being struck by the idea of a battle between carnival merrymakers and dour Lenten observers and thinking that, in such a struggle, the laws of chronology would allow for only one outcome. 

Images: Battle between Carnival and Lent done in the manner of Jheronimus Bosch can be found at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, image taken from wikipedia; Battle between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Breughel the Elder can be found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (there is also a copy by his son at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels), image taken from Kunsthistorisches Museum website; Battle between Carnival and Lent by Jan Miense Molenaer on display at the Indiana Museum of Art, image taken from the museum’s website.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Portrait of a Sforza


In 1998, a portrait of a young woman was put up for auction by the widow of an art restorer at Christie’s New York  and sold for $21,850.  The catalogue listed the work as “19th century, German.”  This auction was the first time the portrait in question received any sort of public attention, and since then some art critics began to question Christie’s description-- suggesting that it might be older and Italian.  Then, starting around 2008, several art historians advanced the bold theory that this might in fact be a previously unknown work by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).   Martin Kemp, emeritus professor in the history of art at Trinity College and the most vocal advocate for attributing the work to Leonardo, wrote a book on the subject (published in 2010), in which he gives it the nickname “la bella principessa.”

As documented in the NOVA episode “Mystery of a Masterpiece,” since this speculation began the principessa has been thoroughly scrutinized by art experts and subjected to all kinds of scientific analyses.  Here is what they discovered:

1. The portrait was made with ink and chalk on vellum.  There are no other surviving works by Leonardo using these media (the many other drawings we have by him are all on paper), however the master was known for his innovation and experimentation.  Moreover, in a note known as the “Ligny memorandum” (preserved in the collection of da Vinci’s writings and drawings called the Codex Atlanticus), Leonardo says that he consulted with French court artist Jean Perréal (c1450-c1530), when the latter came to Milan in 1494, for advice on working with chalk and vellum.  The portrait was created using a technique very similar to the trois crayons first developed by French artists during the Renaissance.

2. Radiocarbon dating shows that the vellum came from an animal that died sometime around 1440-1650.  The aforementioned NOVA documentary was quick to point out that this evidence alone is not dispositive: forgers have been known to scrape the paint off old canvases and use them for their own work in order to better deceive experts regarding its age.  And apparently old vellum is not that hard to come by.

3.  The hatch shading around the young woman’s profile is oriented the way a left-handed person would naturally draw it.  It is-- of course-- a widely known fact that Leonardo was left handed; indeed, some suggest the explanation for why he employed mirror writing in his personal notebooks is simply that he wrote from right to left so as not to smudge the ink with his hand.  But, again, one cannot read too much into this: as Italian Leonardo scholar Pietro Marani said, “the fact that one is looking at a drawing by a left-handed artist does not carry any weight: there exist copies of drawings by Leonardo made by imitators which present this particular characteristic-- by, Francesco Melzi, for example....”

4.   One can see a partial fingerprint in the upper left-hand corner of the painting.  Leonardo sometimes used his hands to spread out/blend/schmear paint on the canvas, and thus many of his works bear traces of fingerprints.  His portrait of Ginevra de’ Benchi, on display at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, is marked with several fingerprints.  As for the print on the principessa, the consensus among experts is that it is too fragmentary to be of use in identifying the person who left it.

5.  Some art critics believe they see signs of the master’s work in the portrait's fine details: the minute workmanship that went into representing the girl’s eye, the subtle contour where her ear lay beneath the hair, the tension of the braids comprising her headdress.

6. X-rays have revealed pentimenti beneath the surface.  This is an interesting fact although it is neither here nor there in the Leonardo debate.


Who is the girl in the portrait?  Elisabetta Gnignera, an expert on historical Italian costume, identifies the young woman’s distinctive headdress (coazzone) as a hairstyle introduced to the Milan court by Beatrice d’Este (1475-1497) in 1491 when she wed the city’s ruler, Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza.   It remained en vogue there for the next eight years (at most) before fashions changed and Milanese women adopted the foggia alla Francese .  Thus-- if we accept the portrait as a genuine Renaissance work-- this would suggest it was painted in Milan between 1491 and 1499.  Leonardo da Vinci’s sojourn in the city lasted from 1482 to 1499.

The fact that the principessa is depicted in formal profile suggests that the young woman was a member of the ducal family.  In contrast, other ladies of the court-- such as Ludovico’s mistresses-- might be painted in less formal poses.  A good example of this is la Dama con l’ermellino, which is widely believed to be a portrait by Leonardo of Ludovico il Moro’s mistress Cecilia Gallerani (1473-1536).

Based on this information, it has been theorized that the girl in the principessa portrait is Bianca Sforza (1482-1496), the eldest daughter of Ludovico Sforza born out of wedlock prior to his marriage to Beatrice.  She was probably thirteen or fourteen when she sat for the portrait.  Around this same time, in 1496, Bianca was married to Galeazzo Sanseverino, the condottiero (i.e. mercenary captain) who led her father’s army, and it is possible the work was commissioned to celebrate her engagement or her wedding.  Bianca died less than a year into the marriage.


Ludovico “il Moro” Sforza (1452-1508) was the son of Francesco Sforza (1401-1466), the first member of the family to reign as Duke of Milan, and the younger brother of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476) who succeeded their father as duke.  His nickname, which literally means “the Moor,” was presumably given to him because he had dark features although several alternative explanations have been suggested.

Francesco Sforza is best known for signing the Peace of Lodi in 1454 which established a balance of power in Italy and laid the foundation for 40 years of almost unbroken harmony and stability across the peninsula; this diplomacy marked a dramatic change from his predecessors, the Visconti, who had involved Milan in all sorts of expansionist wars and power struggles with Venice.  Francesco was also fondly remembered for his efforts to modernize the city and improve government efficiency as well as for his patronage of the arts.

In sharp contrast with his father, after he was made duke in 1466, Galeazzo Maria Sforza quickly inspired enmity among the people of Milan due to his unrestrained womanizing and his cruelty.  He was famously assassinated in the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore on the day after Christmas (i.e. the Feast of St Stephen).  At the time, Galeazzo Maria’s son, Gian Galeazzo Sforza  (1469-1494), was only seven years old.  After a prolonged power struggle with the boy’s mother,  Bona of Savoy (1449-1503), Ludovico had himself declared regent in 1480/81, and he held on to the reins of power even after Gian Galeazzo reached majority.  

When his nephew conveniently died at the age of 25, Ludovico inherited the duchy outright.  He even received official investiture as Duke of Milan-- something his father never managed-- from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519, father of Philip the Handsome) whose allegiance Ludovico had sealed by giving him his niece (Bianca Maria Sforza, Galeazzo Maria’s daughter) in marriage together with a lavish dowry of 400,000 ducats.  Yet Ludovico would be ousted from power five years later when King Louis XII of France (1462-1515)-- who had a legitimate claim to the Milanese throne through his paternal grandmother, Valentina Visconti, daughter of the first crowned Duke of Milan-- invaded the duchy.  On April 10, 1500, Ludovico was taken prisoner by the French army while attempting to take back Milan, and he would spend the rest of his life locked up in the fortified Château de Loches in France’s Loire valley.

Ludovico Sforza and his wife Beatrice were renowned patrons of the arts, and many celebrated artists, poets and men of learning were drawn to their court.  Leonardo da Vinci settled in Milan after delivering a silver lyre from Florence that had been given as a gift to Ludovico by Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449-1492).  He wrote a letter to Sforza offering his services where he boasted of his expertise in military engineering before going on to say that he was also a sculptor and painter.  During his time in Milan-- besides producing a few portraits-- Leonardo painted the Virgin of the Rocks and the Last Supper, he continued his study of mechanics and engineering (Milan lent itself well to these endeavors as its many wars had led to a ubiquity of the latest military technology), and he worked on several projects commissioned by Ludovico including a huge bronze horse (meant to serve as a monument to Francesco Sforza) which was never cast.


One possible explanation for why la bella principessa is on vellum, and how it escaped attention for centuries, is that it may have once been part of a book.  To this end, in the National Library of Poland, one can find a unique copy of the Sforziade  or “Sforziad”-- an historical/panegyric/propagandist work subtitled rerum gestarum francisci sfortiae mediolanensium ducis [the deeds of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan].  The books of the Sforziad were first written between 1473 and 1476 in Renaissance Latin by Giovanni Simonetta, the humanist who had served as the late duke’s secretary and as head of the ducal chancery.  In the late 1480s, Ludovico il Moro commissioned the printing of a new edition of the Sforziad, translated into the vulgate in order to reach a wider audience (the Warsaw copy boasts that it was “translated into the Florentine language by Christophoro Landino, Florentine”).  It is easy to guess at Ludovico’s motivations in doing this: he wanted to bolster the Sforza dynasty’s legitimacy as well as associating himself with his well-liked father-- who was cited as an example of a good ruler in Macchiavelli’s Principe-- while pushing aside the reign of his reprobate brother.  Hence in the translator’s preface he is referred to as “Ludovico sphorza vero imitatore delle paterne virtu, gli eccellenti e Cesarei facti suoi” [“Ludovico Sforza true emulator of his father’s virtues and his excellent and Caesarian deeds”].

The Sforziade found in the Polish National Library is one of four extant special copies printed on vellum for presentation to members of the Sforza clan.  It contains a unique frontispiece designed by Giovan Pietro Birago whose border illustrations commemorate the marriage between Bianca Sforza and Galeazzo Sanseverino (For more information on all this, see Professor Edward Wright’s exhaustive article on the Warsaw Sforziad).  Take, for example, the three escutcheons in the right margin: at the top one sees the arms of Aragon (likely honoring the groom’s father, Roberto Sanseverino, who was granted the surname “d’Aragona”  by the King of Naples); the middle shield shows Galeazzo’s personal heraldic device, two hands wringing out Gideon’s fleece; and the bottom shield bears heraldic or pseudo-heraldic devices supposedly representing Bianca’s father, Ludovico, as ruler of Bari and Milan (the “nebuly livery of the Milanese dukes” quartered with the “ship of state”).  At the foot of the page, we also see a gathering of little people: the central figure is a black male-- a “Moor” commonly used to symbolize Ludovico il Moro.  To his left, we see what appears to be a fair young man with a dark-skinned girl on his arm; this is likely meant to represent the newlywed couple-- Sanseverino and il Moro’s daughter.  Below the central figure, we see an inscription of the Bible verse in which Jesus instructs his disciples to “go forth and bear fruit” as well as several rabbits which suggest fertility.


The history of this volume and how it ended up in Warsaw is interesting in and of itself: it appears to be one of the many valuables that were looted when the French conquered Milan in 1499.  Thus-- according to one reconstruction-- it found its way to the Château de Blois.  Subsequently, Louis XII’s successor, François I (1494-1547), gave the book as a wedding gift when Bona Sforza (1494-1557, the daughter of Gian Galeazzo) married King Sigismund I of Poland (1467-1548) in 1517.

Meanwhile, Matin Kemp has discovered that the page directly preceding the Warsaw tome’s frontispiece has been removed.  The bella principessa portrait bears three, small-- barely noticeable-- notches on its left side which line up with the stitches of the book’s original binding (which are not spaced evenly apart).  Moreover spectral analyses of the portrait and the vellum pages in the book were shown to be very similar.  This is strong evidence that the portrait may have been bound in and later torn out of this copy of the Sforziad.  If so, that would confirm that the principessa is indeed a genuine piece of Italian Renaissance artwork, and it would also connect the portrait with Bianca Sforza.  The possibility remains that it could have been produced by another artist active in Milan at that time, but then if one takes into account all the portrait’s alleged Leonardian elements listed above it suggests that this may indeed be the handiwork of the master.  Moreover, Leonardo is known to have done work not just for Ludovico Sforza but also for Sanseverino.


Yet many figures in the art establishment are still not convinced that the principessa is a genuine Leonardo da Vinci.  Most notably, the director of Britain’s National Gallery chose not to include the work in the museum’s recent exhibition focusing on da Vinci’s career as a painter at the Milan court.  Moreover, Kate Ganz, the New York art dealer who bought the work at Christie’s, has stated that she and the many art experts who saw the work at her gallery all believed that the work was created no earlier than the 19th-century by an artist who sought to imitate or emulate the master.

There are several reasons for this scepticism.  First is the shroud of mystery surrounding the portrait’s provenance.  The principessa’s current owner (or last owner of record) is a Canadian art dealer named Peter Silverman who originally claimed that he discovered the painting shut away in a drawer in Switzerland.  In reality, he purchased the work from Ganz in 2007 for around the same amount she paid at auction.  When Silverman’s dramatic tale of discovery was proven false, this naturally raised suspicions.

Secondly, many sceptics believe that the portrait is in implausibly good condition for a 500-year-old chalk drawing.  Perhaps if it had been pressed between the pages of a book for most of that time this would help explain that?  Likewise, just as some critics believe they can see the hand of the master at work in the principessa, there are others who see flaws and say it is not up Leonardo’s standards (many of these arguments are summarized in the comment to this blog post).

In response to all this, Kemp points to the growing number of other art experts who support the attribution to Leonardo, and he suggests that the most vocal dissenters are art critics who passed over the principessa when it was on auction at Christie’s and on display at Ganz’s gallery.  Kemp also believes that the evidence he unearthed regarding the Warsaw Sforziad resolves the question of the portrait’s provenance, and likewise the radiocarbon dating and the comparison between the vellum of the drawing and the book’s folios support dating the work to the late 1400s.

Furthermore, authorities in the art world are often conservative about declaring that a new work was created by a master artist.  They don’t want to add a new piece to the officially recognized cannon until they are quite sure of its authorship.  The attribution of artwork is a tricky business relying on careful scrutiny of fine details, the subjective opinion of experts who are most familiar with the work of the artist in question and-- increasingly-- scientific/forensic analysis.  Just a few years ago, a painting of the Torment of St Anthony (sold at Sotheby’s for $2 million in 2008 and now on display at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas)  achieved wide recognition as the work of a young Michelangelo (1475-1564).  Meanwhile most experts now believe that the Madonna Litta which can normally be found at the Hermitage in St Petersburg was completed not by Leonardo but by one of his students.  Thus arguments over a work’s attribution can go on for decades.


While Kemp asserts that the Warsaw Sforziad offers ample proof to confirm experts’ theory that the principessa is the work of Leonardo, one sceptic believes that he found his own “smoking gun” which disproves the attribution once and for all.  An art historian and former gallery owner from New Mexico named Fred Kline suggests that the principessa might be the work of an artist associated with the Nazarene movement: a group of early 19th-century German painters who rejected neoclassicism and mannerism.  For a time they took up residence in Rome where they studied and emulated the Old Masters of the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance, going so far as depicting their subjects in period dress and painting dramatic tableaux of Biblical scenes.  A group of Nazarenes lived together in Rome where they observed a quasi-monastic lifestyle and attempted to recreate the atmosphere of an artists’ workshop of the early 1400s. One can basically think of them as precursors to the Pre-Raphaelites.  

In particular, Kline points to a pencil on vellum drawing by Leipzig-born artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872) that can be found at the museum in Mannheim (Baden-Württemberg), Germany.  The drawing is of a half-nude female who Kline believes to be the same model depicted in the principessa; moreover, the girl is wearing a similar period hairstyle.  Kline also points out that both works were drawn on vellum (“an eccentric material for drawing”) while all known sketches by Leonardo are on paper.  Kline’s attribution to Schnorr would mesh with Christie’s description of the portrait as “19th-century, German”-- indeed, they must have had something similar in mind.

Schnorr is probably most famous for his Bible illustrations and for the frescoes commissioned by King Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786-1868) for the Munich Residenz in which he depicted scenes from the Niebelungen (whose protagonist is Siegfried-- source material for Wagner’s Ring Cycle).  He also designed stained glass windows for St Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The stained glass windows were destroyed during WWII as was most of the Munich Residenz although the Nibelungensäle and its frescoes were reconstructed in 1955-1960.

Meanwhile-- while I cannot deny the similarity-- I am not convinced the half-nude female is the same girl depicted in the principessa.  Judge for yourself.


In 2010, the principessa was exhibited to the public for the first time at an event hall in Gothenburg, Sweden.  Based on the attribution to Leonardo da Vinci the portrait is/would be valued in excess of $100 million.  Jeanne Marchig, the widow who put it up for auction in 1998, filed suit against Christie’s alleging negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.   On January 31, 2011, Judge Koetl of the SDNY granted Christie’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed Marchig’s petition on the grounds that it was filed after all claims had expired under the corresponding statutes of limitations.   

Images: Image of "La Bella Principessa" found on wikipedia; detail depicting Ludovico il Moro from the Sforza Altarpiece c.1495  located in Milan's Pinacoteca (image found on wikipedia); "Study of a Horse" c.1490 by Leonardo da Vinci located in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle (image found on wikipedia); image of Sforziad frontispiece by Birago from National Library of Poland found on "Leonardo da Vinci and La Bella Principessa" website; "Half-Nude Female" 1820-21 by Julian Schnorr located in Mannheim Museum, image found on