Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Jo Ann Caplin’s Video on La Bella Milanese

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/23 at 06:14 PM

In today’s Brown Bag Lecture at CHF Jo Ann Caplin talked about a drawing that recently has attracted scholarly and media attention because it might be by Leonard da Vinci.1 The drawing, commonly called “La Bella Milanese,” was sold a couple years back for as a 19th-century German portrait. An anonymous Swiss collector paid $19,000 for the work. The new owner contacted a Parisian firm, Lumiere Technology, to have the work scanned.2

Jo Ann Caplin talking at CHF on La Bella Milanese

After showing the incredibly high-resolution scans of the drawing—240 million pixels—Caplin screened a portion of a video she had made, following Martin Kemp—one of the foremost Leonardo scholars in the English-speaking world—as he looked at the scans and then subsequently examined the actual drawing. Looking at the scans Kemp was able to point to some tell-tale details that point to Leonardo’s authorship: hash marks, flesh tones from velum, velum artifacts (the edges are cut by a knife, particular those that reveal that the velum was cut out of a codex). But, in the end, Kemp goes to see the original because seeing it in the original is quite different: much softer, more subtle, “more romantic.” You can see and feel the surface when you inspect the original.

The video follows Kemp from the offices in Paris to an unidentifiable “vault” where the original was kept. Set to dramatic music, we got to see the work unpacked from its crate so that Kemp could examine it. In the end, Kemp declares that the drawing is, in fact, a Leonardo. While he is certainly drawing on his expertise, it comes down to the “wow factor.” Kemp claims that when seeing a work you have to be moved to say “That is just fantastic.” And Kemp thinks that this work is just fantastic.3

At this point, the punchline has been given away, so Caplin fills the last few minutes with a final piece of confirming evidence, the smoking gun: a fingerprint. According to Peter Biro, a forensic art expert, the fingerprint turns out to be Leonardo’s.

La Bella Milanese. The fingerprint is in the small box in the upper left.

Questions for Caplin ranged from more typical art history questions about the provenance to the trendy scientific questions about possible DNA evidence. One interesting exchange occurred when somebody asked about Kemp’s final criteria—the “wow factor”—and how this left unresolved any final decision about authorship, Caplin offered a list of academic scholars who agree with Kemp on the authorship. According to Caplin, museum curators did not, in general, agree with Kemp. She then cited Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink as evidence that you just know something by glancing. When pressed further by the questioner, she replied: “If you are really educated and schooled ….” Although she didn’t complete the sentence, she implied by her tone and in her subsequent comments that educated people would accept Kemp’s attribution.

The flurry of activity last October covered most of the material Caplin presented. She used her presentation as an opportunity to highlight the video she had produced. Caplin spoke for a few minutes in the beginning, showed a video during which she said almost nothing, spoke again for a couple minutes at the end, and then let people ask some questions. Both the format and the content raises for me some questions: First: how much of a presentation should be new, or relatively new, or at least not old news? Having read the articles last fall, I had hoped Caplin would offer a behind-the-scenes account of her and Kemp’s detective work. Maybe I’m not the ideal test case, but I think a presentation should offer more than what has been covered in USA Today and articles. Second: how much should a presenter be expected to speak? Caplin spoke for around 10 minutes of her 30 presentation. The rest of the time was taken up by showing digital images of the drawing and screening a video, in which Caplin neither appeared nor spoke. Are presenters expected to be more present in their presentations? What is the role of a speaker/presenter?

I was prompted to think about how digitization limits what you can and can’t say about an object. Caplin’s presentation began by showing incredibly high-resolution scans of La Bella Milanese (you can see them here). These are impressive and allow for amazing detail:

Detail of eye from the La Bella Milanese (Source: Lumiere Technology)

Kemp’s initial examination of this work was mediated through these digital scans. And while he used them to point to a number of details, in the end he claimed that they were insufficient. They were useful for guiding his examination of the actual object, but they failed to give him the information he needed to decide whether or not the drawing was by Leonardo. Does that represent the limit of digital reproductions? Can they only guide further research? Or is Kemp’s comment about interacting with the actual artifact simply “more romantic”? And is romantic engagement sufficient to warrant such access? These questions could also be asked of projects as the Royal Society’s Turning the Pages, which has been attracting all sorts of attention. Kemp is surely right when he says that you can’t learn everything by looking at a scan—e.g., surface imperfections and other three-dimensional details are his example. But who needs to know that sort of information? Are digital copies sufficient for most people most of the time? Are we merely attached to the romantic notion of fondling the real thing? Is the “wow factor” that important? Are digital reproductions merely today’s microfilm? Certainly useful, handy but limited, probably good enough in many instances but ultimately insufficient for specialized scholars? Martin Kemp clearly considers digital scans, no matter how detailed, inadequate for his task.

1Last fall there was a brief flourishing of interest in this drawing. Media reports covered all the key details. For example, see the article in USA Today, another at, and NPR covered it on an episode of “All Things Considered.”.
2By July 2008 Lumiere Technology had announced that they had discovered that the work was, in fact, by Leonardo. See the press release.
3Maybe this article in the current issue of Nature offers a way to quantify the analysis such that we don’t need to rely on the “wow factor”: B. Olshausen and M. DeWeese, “Applied Mathematics: The Statistics of Style,” Nature 463 (25 February 2010): 1027–28.

Tags: art, chemical heritage foundation, digital humanities, hagiography, lecture, leonardo davinci, on-line exhibitions