Art is never finished, only abandoned.
—Leonardo da Vinci
In 1519, Leonardo was an old man in his sixty-seventh year, and he was gravely ill, confined to his bed in the Clos Lucé, the French manor he had lived in for three years under the grace of his dear friend King Fran¸ois I. Perhaps in his imaginings, which were sometimes fevered, the work of his life swirled around him: the face of an angel gazing in reverence at the Christ child, the violent passion of the Battle of Anghiari, the pain in the faces of Jesus’s disciples as they learned of his betrayal by one of their own, the beautiful seductiveness of Lisa’s smile, the lovely countenances of the women of Ludovico’s court, the thousands of sketches made in what he now despaired were a futile attempt to pull the very souls of his subjects into view.
According to the author Giorgio Vasari, as winter turned to spring, the king often came to sit by Leonardo’s bedside. He was supportive of Leonardo’s late-life turn to religion. After painting some of the most iconic religious themes ever made, Leonardo felt his life ebbing away and had found God. Although he was extremely weak, he would ask Fran¸ois and others to help him leave his chamber so he could take the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
On his last day of life, his breath labored, Leonardo saw his beloved friend the king in the doorway, looking at him with great sadness. “Help me sit,” he said, and the king gently lifted him into an upright position.
“I am dying,” Leonardo said with a faint voice, tinged with regret. “I have failed in this life to do full justice to my gift.”
“No, no,” Fran¸ois protested. “You have honored us all with your work.”
“I have offended God by not working as well as I ought to have. I pray to be forgiven.”
Suddenly Leonardo shuddered and let out a gasping breath. The king raised his friend’s head to ease his suffering and held him in his arms as Leonardo passed on to the next life—the last thought in his mind that he had been a poor servant of his art.
Those who mourned him would disagree. Vasari recorded in the aftermath of Leonardo’s leaving the earth, “The splendor of his great beauty could calm the saddest soul, and his words could move the most obdurate mind. His great strength could restrain the most violent fury, and he could bend an iron knocker or a horseshoe as if it were lead. He was liberal to his friends, rich and poor, if they had talent and worth; and indeed as Florence had the greatest of gifts in his birth, so she suffered an infinite loss in his death.”1
The discovery and consecration of La Bella Principessa has been a gratifying culmination of my nearly half a century of love and passion for art. It is perhaps every collector’s swan song come to fruition. As Martin so poetically put it, “It is a star portrait of a stellar sitter. La Bella Principessa, as the poets would claim, testifies to Leonardo da Vinci’s victory over the transitory beauties of envious nature and the ravages of corrosive time. It is, I believe, an image that is bound to bring great pleasure to successive generations of viewers.”2
But the joy and excitement are naturally tempered by a touch of melancholy and a sweet sadness for dear time’s waste—the profound realization that nothing is permanent and that the only certainty in life is uncertainty.
What could better exemplify this human reality than the fate of the beautiful girl so sensitively depicted by the great Master, Leonardo da Vinci? Bianca Sforza, on the threshhold of a sumptuous courtly life, so full of promise, was suddenly struck down at the age of fourteen. Thanks to the miraculous hand of a genius, Bianca escaped a fate of oblivion, and we are able to appreciate her beauty and cherish her existence.
It is sobering to think how close Bianca came, after five hundred hidden years, to nearly being lost to us again, perhaps this time forever. I have asked myself often where fate has taken her over the centuries, from the moment her portrait was most probably cut from the family album, no longer serving either a political or sentimental purpose. Was it first passed around by former friends or her husband, framed and hung in a family chapel, or hidden in a somber room, a faint remembrance? And with the vagaries of time and through the years of plague, warfare, political dislocations and turmoil, what happened to her? Our fantasies can run wild imagining where she lay hidden all those centuries until Giannino Marchig, an expert restorer and fine painter in his own right, found her, we know not where, prized her without knowing her origins or author, and lovingly restored her, for his own pleasure and the simple joy of bringing her back to life. And then, with some serious misappraisals, misjudgments and a quirk of fate, she fell into my almost unworthy hands—unworthy because I did not immediately understand or recognize her extraordinary qualities or importance. Fortunately, it seems my whole life as a passionate collector focalized and culminated on this one object, and through my experience and many contacts in the field of art, I was able to advance at an astonishing pace for a discovery of this magnitude. I hope this book pays adequate homage to those who made this an amazing success. It has been a truly rewarding adventure, and I am thankful for having played my part.
Yet, at the back of my mind there will forever be a sigh and a thought for Bianca and Leonardo, as a sonnet by Shakespeare echoes in my mind:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe
And moan th’expense of many a vanished sight.
La Bella Principessa, as the poets would claim, testifies to Leonardo da Vinci’s victory over the transitory beauties of envious nature and the ravages of corrosive time. It is, I believe, an image that is bound to bring great pleasure to successive generations of viewers.
A century from now, when all who read these pages are but distant memories, Leonardo will, I pray, still be present in the world: a paradigm of perfection, an example to be emulated, a model for the geniuses of the future.