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Leonardo's botanical drawings shed new light on the North Carolina Museum of Art's: Portrait of a Youth Crowned with Flowers, attributed to Boltraffio.

For the past fifty years a small quattrocento oil on walnut painting has been part of the permanent collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh, North Carolina (fig. 1). It is exhibited today as Portrait of a Youth Crowned, with Flowers in the NCMA's new West wing and dated 1490, with an attribution to Leonardo Da Vinci's pupil, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. The depiction of a youth with finely detailed curled hair was a familiar subject in Leonardo's workshop and studio in Milan in the 1490's. Though no exact preparatory sketch for the figure itself has been identified, a half dozen drawings of garlanded youths from Leonardo's pupils in the 1490's survive. (1) It is the distinctiveness of the floral garland in the Portrait of a Youth, and also the unusually proportioned facial structure of the figure that makes the work an intriguing subject for closer study of the techniques, methods, and source materials that might have been present in Leonardo's Milan workshop. To investigate what Portrait of a Youth could reveal about these issues, an interdisciplinary group of art historians, botanists, and mathematicians brought the learning of their respective disciplines to look at new ways to analyze how the painting fits within the context of Leonardo's mid-career workshop practice and intellectual explorations. (2)


"Leonardo Da Vinci's eighteen years in Milan were the making of him," states Luke Syson in the introduction to the catalogue accompanying the 2011 exhibition Leonardo Da Vinci Painter at the Court of Milan. (3) This period was also the making of his oft-termed "only assistant," the aristocratic Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio who I joined the Master's workshop early in the 1490's. For the youthful Boltraffio, here lay a grand opportunity for this precocious Milanese to be taught the Florentine manner by the self-proclaimed "disciple of experience." Leonardo was engaged in a whirlwind of activity under the auspices of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. It was in this combined mid-career trajectory of Ludovico and Leonardo that Boltraffio's Portrait of a Youth was conceived and created out of the ground breaking naturalistic depiction of both faces and symbolic botanicals of Leonardo's first major Milan commission, the Virgin of the Rocks.

In the late 1480's or early 1490's Leonardo was given living quarters and workspace in the Corte Vecchia, the medieval castle in the center of Milan formerly occupied by the Visconti family prior to the ascendency of the Sforza family in Milan. Not much is known about the particulars of the studio, and Syson, speculating in Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan posits that Leonardo's Milan workshop may have held works brought from Florence as well as drawings for current projects-including the Madonna Benois, a drawing for St. Jerome, eight St. Sebastians, a head of Christ, a Mary Magdalene, an adolescent Christ, four drawings of the holy angel, a willowy St. John the Baptist, and many flowers copied from life. (4) Leonardo's predilection for floral studies and the new landscape environment of Lombardy is a key part of what is unique about the garland depicted in the Portrait of a Youth Crowned with Flowers. Unlike the surviving paintings of garlanded figures associated with Boltraffio and others in Leonardo's workshop in the 1490's, the garland in the Portrait of a Youth reveals a distinct floral cycle of life, starting from bud, to newly opened flower, followed by a fully opened flower, and finally showing a fading/dying flower. Girl with Cherries, which is attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis (ca. 1491-95, Metropolitan Museum of Art), features a garland of ivy-like leaves interspersed with tiny blue buds. In comparison, Portrait of a Youth Holding an Arrow (ca. 1500-1510, Timken Museum of Art) features a definitive coronet of laurel leaves with no flowers, while the garland depicted in Portrait of a Youth as Saint Sebastian (fig. 5) combines both jewels and subdued small leaves and buds, and both of these painting have undisputed attributions to Boltraffio.

When the botanists and horticultural scientists in the aforementioned interdisciplinary group began to consult taxonomies, the detailed definition of the tri-lobed plant leaves in the Portrait of a Youth plus the clear rendering of petals and blossoms throughout the painted garland, provided the information to solidify the identification of this plant as a Hepatica nobilis acutiloba, a spring blooming perennial native to the foothills of the Alps just north of Milan (fig. 2). Hepatica foliage is green when it first blooms and takes on a reddish hue in the fall. When the red hue is visible, the tri-lobed leaves evoke the liver by their shape and reddish coloring, thus explaining the plant's more common name of Liverwort. This delicate perennial flowers in early spring, covering wooded hillsides with blue, white, or pinkish blossoms. From the perspective of the Greek realm of learning known as the doctrine of signatures, (where the shape of a plant determines the area of the body it was meant to cure), the Hepatica is seen as both a curative of the body (as Liverwort) and also as curative of the soul (as the long awaited harbinger of springtime). Following the identification of the flower in the garland of the Portrait of a Youth as a Hepatica nobilis acutiloba, a review of literature on Leonardo's botanical interests by the interdisciplinary team led to a closer scrutiny of a drawing presently in the Accademia in Venice and ascribed to Leonardo in A.E. Popham's catalog The Drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci, as Studies of Flowers (fig. 3). (5) There is ample detailed scholarship on Leonardo's use of nature studies in his work, however none of these works mention Leonardo's depictions clearly drawn from a Hepatica nobilis. Popham dates this Leonardo drawing to c. 1486, and as Leonardo arrived in Milan in 1482, his ability to explore the terrain of the Piedmont area surrounding Milan would have put him in contact with this delicate flower. (6) A careful analysis of the Studies of Flowers reveals Leonardo sketching the Hepatica as bud, blossom, and fading flower (fig. 4). Also visible in the drawing to the left of the faded blossom are two leaves that are identifiable as leaves of the Hepatica plant and that are drawn in a manner very similar to the leaves in the Boltraffio panel. Originally drawn in silverpoint with an overdrawing of ink, the Hepatica renderings in the Accademia drawing match up almost identically (based on computer overlay measurements) with the painted renditions in the Portrait of a Youth. The close linkage between drawing and painting is not unusual considering the close relationship between Leonardo and Boltraffio. In the catalog Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman, Carmen Bambach summarizes what is known about Boltraffio in Leonardo's studio:
   Boltraffio was one of Leonardo's
   closest and most gifted pupils.
   Their affiliation which endured
   for a decade or more, is attested
   by several contemporary sources:
   Leonardo himself mentioned Boltraffio
   in a note of 1491, in which
   the latter is familiarly referred
   to as "Gian Antonio" ... The Bolognese
   poet, Girolamo Casio, an
   intimate of Boltraffio, proclaimed
   (somewhat hyperbolically) that he
   was the "only student of Leonardo
   da Vinci." ... According to Paolo
   Giovio, who described Leonardo's
   pedagogical method, the master
   cultivated such proficiency on the
   part of his pupils by having them
   execute drawings in his manner;
   only when full command of his
   technique was achieved was
   the pupil--who must also have
   attained at least twenty years of
   age--permitted to paint. (7)




Sorting out the nuances of hands among Leonardo and his circle has long been a problem in studies of Renaissance painting. In the previous century, important scholarship was begun by the Austrian art historian Wilhelm Suida in his 1929 book Leonardo und sein Kreis. In 1947 Suida was named the head of art historical research for the Kress Foundation in New York. Prior to entering the Kress Collection, Portrait of a Youth had been purchased from the Dreyfus collection by Duveen & Co. in 1930, and Suida, after close examination of the painting at Duveen's in New York, wrote the following:
   There are also two fanciful heads
   that seem to me to be delicate
   works by Boltraffio, with a
   partial retouching by Leonardo.
   The portrait of a young girl with
   flowers in her hair and a richly
   embroidered dress, formerly in the
   Dreyfus Collection at Paris and
   the St. Sebastian in Leningrad. (8)

It is of note that Suida mentions a link between the Portrait of a Youth and the St. Sebastian (fig. 5). Both images feature youthful figures with shoulder length curled locks, leaf-based crowns in the their golden hair, and carefully rendered elegant clothing upon the respective figures. Upon a closer look, the faces in the two paintings also have a similar disproportionate facial asymmetry. This facial asymmetry can be seen by noting the manner in which the proper left side of the face is distinctly defined, while the proper right side is much softer in definition with a distinct shadowing seen in the cheek area. Further visible is a disproportional relationship seen in the eyes, clearly discerned in the St. Sebastian and much more subtly visible in the Portrait of a Youth.



The interdisciplinary group would offer a working hypothesis that these changes which resulted in odd facial proportioning may be due to an attempted new perspective construction first worked out in aspects of Leonardo's early Florentine Portrait of Ginevra de Bend. Lombard painter and art theorist Giovanni Paolo Loazzo, first named the type of perspective construction unique to Leonardo as "perspettiva inversa." (9)

Lyle Massey in his recent book Picturing Space, Displacing Bodies: Anamorphosis in Early Modem Theories of Perspective, discusses in detail Lomazzo's reference to Leonardo's "prospettiva inversa." Massey explains:
   while Leonardo opposed the
   use of anamorphic or severely
   foreshortened images in most
   painting, the fact that he produced
   anamorphic drawings and
   paintings indicates his clear interest
   in the theory and exploitation
   of distorted perspective. The idea
   that perspective could be manipulated
   in order to produce a special
   kind of picture that could only be
   viewed from a severely distorted
   oblique angle was obviously
   attractive in its own right. (10)

The evidence Massey cites for Leonardo's use of a proto-anamorphosis exists in two forms--the first is an extant drawing by Leonardo located today in the Codex Atlanticus in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and picturing a child's face and eye, (fig. 6) as well as Lomazzo's account of two optically unique pictures drawn by Leonardo and produced for Francis I. (11) Leonardo's "prospettiva inversa" of a child's eye is intended for viewing close to the sheet from the right side. Further evidence for a Leonardian mathematical scheme producing a diminution required for anamorphic imaging is found in marks that divide the upper and lower eyelid edges possibly indicating a geometric method for elongating images, not known in Leonardo's surviving extant written works. (12)

Looking back to Leonardo's work painted prior to arriving in Milan in the early 1480's, the unusual facial proportioning of the Portrait of Ginevra de Bend has not gone without notice. In an article published in The Medieval and Renaissance Times, entitled "The Secret Revealed: How to Look at Italian Renaissance Paintings," John Lupia proposes that the cause of the anomaly of the oft-cited odd proportioning of the face of Ginevra de Benci, can be deduced by bisecting Ginevra's face (fig. 7). Lupia's demonstration for the illustration of Ginevra's face, highlighting Leonardo's unique perspective carries the following explanation:
   We observe that the right side
   contains the normal features of
   the three-quarter view, but the
   left does not contain the expected
   foreshortened profile, instead we
   see the full-faced view. The face of
   Ginevra is a composite drawing
   where the three-quarter view is
   fused with that of the full face. (13)


Lupia goes on to cite Walter Friedlander as having suggested that Leonardo was attempting to create the illusion of Ginevra's head moving from the three quarter view to the full view, and back again. He explains that a three quarter face has turned toward us (in the minds' eye) and has imparted the notion of movement. Our mind's attention is drawn by this variance from the norm--the frontal aspect. (14)

While infrareds and X-rays of the Leonardo Portrait of Ginevra de Benci, are unable to speak to the noted oddity of its facial construction (due to the lead white of the painted botanical reverse), infrareds and X-rays of the Portrait of a Youth reveal curious similar facial width changes (fig. 8). (15) The obvious alternative hypothesis is the presumed ineptitude of Leonardo's apprentice. However this view begs the question of why Leonardo would not have intervened regarding his student's error.

An alternative hypothesis is that the desire to emulate Leonardo's new perspective construction may be the factor that accounts for the changes to the face of the Portrait of a Youth, seen in the spectral scans. One might ask what were the influences of Leonardo's early portrait of Ginevra de Benci (the original painting, drawings, or copies of it, or Lorenzo di Credi's Ginevra de Benci in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), on the Portrait of a Youth? Computer overlays made by the interdisciplinary team of the faces of both Ginevra de Benci and the Portrait of a Youth demonstrate an astonishing verisimilitude between the two portraits.

Taking a clue from the way in which artists developed anamorphic projections in the sixteenth century, it appears that the illusion is best detected by examining the work from a sharp right angle. Based upon this knowledge, the interdisciplinary group examined the Boltraffio panel from several points of view. When the Portrait of a Youth is viewed from the front, the shoulder length bust of the sitter in the Raleigh panel appears to be standing in front of an imagined opening of the picture plane where she exists. However, when viewed from a forty-five degree angle at the right, the figure's proper right shoulder and arm, with the clearly defined pomegranate designs, stays linked to the front of the panel, while the figure's proper left shoulder appears to pivot back away from the front of the painting. The less defined aspect of the silver pomegranate cloth on the sitter's proper left, and the vertical swath of golden brown paint, is one of the painting's most puzzling aspects. It evolves to become a vehicle allowing the illusion of the sitter's movement to occur. Also, when viewed from an angle to the side of the panel, the narrowed proper left of the figure's face causes the entire face to form a taller, thinner visage, and aspects of the floral garland begin to take on an illusion of three dimensionality (fig. 9).


In conclusion, it is worth noting how Luke Syson in his chapter, "Beauty and Love, Leonardo's Portraits of Women," posits a progression from the realistic faces of 1490 to 1493's to more idealized and androgynous depictions. He writes:
   A new category emerged, portraits
   of young women and men
   dressed in versions of fashionable
   late fifteenth-century costume,
   but with features that appear
   highly idealized and attributes
   that invoke figures from history
   or myth ... this hint of ambiguity
   seems extremely deliberate. (16)

The Portrait of a Youth, dated c.1490, fits precisely in this transition al time, expressing how Boltraffio's master grappled with how to portray nature and go nature one better.


The workshop in which Boltraffio designed and executed his portraits was one of experimentation and innovation. This was the decade of The Last Supper, Pacoli's and Leonardo's collaborations, and of Leonardo's Cavallo. While Portrait of a Youth fits within the oeuvre of Leonardo's Milanese workshop, it continues today to charm and fascinate. Visually it bespeaks this curious transformative period, and raises dilemmas sparking new hypotheses. It is for later generations to decipher its meaning and whether or not it is autonomous or partnered.


(1.) Luke Syson and Larry Keith, Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (London: National Gallery, 2011), 25. Several of these drawings were recently published in the aforementioned exhibition catalog. They are: Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Head of a young woman, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA; Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Head of a young man with a crown of thorns and ivy, Biblioteca Reale, Turin; and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Head of a youth with an ivy wreath, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Additional drawings include: Portrait of a Youth or Portrait of Bacchus, Accademia, Venice, Young Man in Profile, Paris, and Portrait of Youth with Ivy, Koenigs Collection, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. In addition to the drawings, there are several paintings ascribed to Boltraffio and/or other painters in Leonardo's circle that feature youths with garlands. These are: Girl with Cherries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Portrait of a Youth as Saint Sebastian, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; and Portrait of a Youth Holding an Arrow, Timkin Museum of Art, San Diego. The publication of the study by David Brown, Giulio Bora, and Michael Carminati The Legacy of Leonardo: painters in Lombardy 1490-1530 (Milan: Skira, 1998), has been helpful identifying these works, and a volume dedicated to Boltraffio, Teresa Fiorio, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio: un pittore Milanese net lume di Leonardo, (Milano: Jandi Sapi 2000) has also been of great use. Most recently, the new magisterial study by Alessandro Ballarin, Marialucia Menegatti, and Barbara Maria Savy, Problemi di leonardismo Milanese tra Quattrocento e Cinquecento; Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio prima della Pala Casi. (Verona: Edizioni dell'Aurora, 2011), has been well received as a key new resource in Boltraffio studies.

(2.) During a 1994 residency by Oxford University Professor Martin Kemp at the University of North Carolina, Kemp suggested to one of his seminar students, Robert Elliott, that he should investigate the garland in the NCMA Boltraffio. This suggestion from Kemp came after learning of Robert Elliott's dual interests in botany and Leonardo. Following Kemp's suggestion, Elliott assembled a team consisting of fellow North Carolina State Botanist, Donna Wright, Mathematician Myrick Pullen of Pittsboro, North Carolina, and Art Historian Janet Seiz, of North Carolina A 8c T State University. Curatorial and Conservation Assistance was also generously lent to this endeavor by North Carolina Museum of Art specialists David Steel, Curator of European Art and William Brown, Chief Conservator.

(3.) Syson, Leonardo Da Vinci, 13.

(4.) Syson, Leonardo Da Vinci, p. 25. This selected list is based on the known list of works that show up in a list in Leonardo's hand dated 1485-87 in the Codex Atlanticus, Folio 888r, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan. For more information about the Corte Vecchia, please see Cecelia M. Ady, A History of Milan Under the Sforza (London: Methuen, 1907).

(5.) A.E. Popham, The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, (London: Pimlico, 1994), 126. Though Leonardo botanical scholar William Emboden references other identifiable plants in the Accademia drawing, in his masterful study Leonardo da Vinci on plants and gardens (Oregon: Dioscorides Press, 1987), no mention is made of a Hepatica as a source flower. In addition, Brian Morley, "The Plant Illustrations of Leonardo da Vinci" Burlington Magazine, Vol 121, No. 918 (Sept. 1979) 553-556?562:) while covering a broad range of plants, also does not identify the Hepatica in the Leonardo botanicals referenced in the study.

(6.) Carmen Bambach, Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) 650.

(7.) "Suida, William (Wilhelm Emile)", accessed March 24 2012, suidaw.htm. Further mention of Suida's role was recently made in the National Gallery of Art's 2011 Technical Bulletin "Painting Practice in Milan in the 1490's, the Influence of Leonardo. The authors summarize the field in 2011 as follows. "The terms leonardesco (Leonardesque) and Leonardismo (Leonardism) have had rather a negative association for much of the twentieth century. It is noticeable that no particularly relevant or systematic studies of Leonardo's followers were pursed between 1929, the year of Wilhelm Suida's fundamental publication Leonardo un sein Kreis (Leonardo and his circle), and the early 1980's, when renewed interest in Leonardism first appeared. This long period of neglect has resulted in the attribution and chronology of the paintings by Leonardo's followers continuing to be a matter of great and unresolved debate." Marika Spring, Antonio Mazzotta, Ashok Roy, Rachel Billinge and David Peggie, Painting Practice in Milan in the 1490's, The Influence of Leonardo, Technical Bulletin Volume 21, 2011, National Gallery of Art, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press) 2011, 78.

(8.) William E. Suida, "The School of Leonardo," in Leonardo da Vinci (New York: Reynal & Co., 1956), 319-320.

(9.) In Lomazzo's two surviving treatises, Idea del tempio della pittura, P.G. Pontio, Milano-1590 and the Trattato dell'arte della pittura, scoltura et arcbittettura, P.G. Pontio, Milan, 1585 (both available in online scans at the BnF website of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, http:// point to his observations and theorizing on Leonardo's paintings and drawings. It is thought Lomazzo's information may have been gathered from first hand study of Leonardo's manuscripts, some of which might have been extant in the mid-sixteenth century but lost today. It is Lomazzo that names Leonardo's specific manner of proto-anamorphic projection to be "prospettiva inversa." In her discussion of the methods of perspective known to Leonardo, Lyle Massey, Picturing Space, Displacing Bodies: Anamorphosis in Early Modern Theories of Perspective, (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007), 47, puts forth four different kinds of perspectives available. First is a Perspective Naturalis (Optical Vision), the second a Perspective Artificialis (Artificial Perspective--such as used by Alberti/Brunelleschi), third is Perspectiva Inversa which is the term Lomazzo used to describe Leonardo's peripheral distortions, and last is a composite perspective made out a blend of Perspective Naturalis and Perspective Artificialis. Massey makes the point that this last composite form is one which Leonardo avoided.

(10.) Massey, Picturing Space, 43.

(11.) The two anamorphic based pictures that Leonardo produced for Francis I were a battle between a dragon and a lion, and another picture involving horses. These works do not appear to have survived to the present day.

(12.) For an animated view of the eye drawn by Leonardo in the Codex Atlanticus, see the following website, http://

(13.) John Lupia, "The Secret Revealed: How to Look at Italian Renaissance Paintings, "The Medieval and Renaissance Times, (1994), 10.

(14.) Lupia, Secret Revealed, 14.

(15.) On October 24, 2011 conservator Brown brought the Portrait of a Youth to the NCMA conservation studio and to allow for a re-examination of the painting with the team with infrared reflectography. Interestingly, an overlay was made of the painted surfaces of the face of the Portrait of a Youth, with the painted face of the Ginevra de Benci, finding a highly significant number of points of congruence. The adjustments made on the Portrait of a Youth may suggest that either a tracing or existing sketch of Ginevra's facial proportioning may have been utilized by the young Boltraffio.

(16.) Syson, Leonardo da Vinci, 105.
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Author:Elliott, Robert; Seiz, Janet
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Geographic Code:1U5NC
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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