Fingerprint evidence has led some art experts to the conclusion that a little-known drawing (in some news reports misidentified as a painting) is actually the work of Leonardo da Vinci. But there's no chance the great master gave the drawing its title, La Bella Principessa; that name was invented after recent evidence suggested its noble origins. Who decides what to call an old artwork?
Art historians. Until the middle of the 17th century, it was extremely uncommon for an artist to give his work a formal title. Most pieces were commissioned portraits or religious iconography, and there was no need for explanation. The only name a painting had was the functional identification—usually something like "Profile of a Young Woman"—found in the extensive catalogs of private owners. However, as markets developed and a culture of criticism arose, people needed a shorthand way to refer to Renaissance pieces. The more frequently a particular work was discussed, the more likely that critics and historians would reach an informal agreement over what to call the piece.
Even today, there are many obscure Renaissance portraits with no consensus title. Until La Bella Principessa was asserted to be a 15th-century work by Leonardo, it was sold under the names 19th Century German and Young Girl in Profile in Renaissance Dress. Oxford art historian Martin Kemp, a da Vinci expert and one of the first consultants to declare the drawing's lofty pedigree, renamed the piece based on his postulate that the sitter was the illegitimate daughter of Milanese Duke Ludovico Sforza. (Kemp considered the title La Bella Milanese, but decided it sounded more like the name of an Italian gastronomic delight than a work of art.)
Of course, just because the press has accepted Kemp's title doesn't mean it will stick. Many famous works have undergone a series of name changes over the centuries. Botticelli's Primavera, for example, was described as a "Painting by Botticelli with Nine Figures" in a 16th-century catalog of the Medici family's holdings. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the same painting is described in other collectors' catalogs as The Garden of the Hesperides. Modern scholars adopted the current name in accordance with the interpretation of 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari, who described the painting's subject as the arrival of spring (in Italian, primavera).
Vasari's judgment carries special weight in the naming of Renaissance paintings. Considered by many to be the first art historian, he is also the man who identified the sitter for Leonardo's most famous painting as Florentine aristocrat Lisa del Giocondo. This hypothesis gave rise to the popular name Mona Lisa in England and the United States. Many French and Italian critics, however, refer to the work as La Joconde * or La Gioconda, respectively, referring to the sitter's family name. (Interestingly, these phrases translate loosely into English as "the one who smiles.") Prior to Vasari, the painting had been called A Certain Florentine Lady or A Courtesan in a Gauze Veil.
Some consensus titles are based on dubious history. Leonardo's La Belle Ferronniére is so named because the subject was allegedly the wife of an iron merchant and one of the many mistresses of King Francis I. Raphael's La Fornarina is named for the artist's own supposed mistress, a baker's daughter. There is little evidence that either sitter has been correctly identified, but the titles may have stuck on account of the titillating back stories.
Very rarely, a visionary artist would bestow a conceptual title on one of his works. For example, Dutchman Johannes Vermeer painted a self-portrait called The Art of Painting. He never sold the piece, keeping it in his home until his death in 1675. Historians believe Vermeer himself named the work because his widow identified it by the moniker very shortly after his death.
European artists began titling their own works as a matter of course in the late-17th and early-18th centuries, when the academy system became institutionalized in France and Italy. The academies helped young artists emerge by judging their works and displaying them at annual exhibitions. The academy exhibitions were the first place a viewer might see a painting accompanied by the name of the artist and an official title.
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Explainer thanks Michael Cole of the University of Pennsylvania and Martin Kemp of the University of Oxford.
Correction, Oct. 19, 2009: This article originally misspelled the French name for the Mona Lisa. (Return to the corrected sentence.)