Books: The mystery of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder

Investigators sit neatly on the fence


This book sets out to be a study of Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder. The well-spring of controversy surrounding it stems from the fact that the Yarnwinder exists in two versions, both by Leonardo, which are named after their provenances and are largely, but by no means wholly, identical. One of these, known as the “Lansdowne”, is of Italian origin, while the other, the “Buccleuch”, is largely of French provenance. How these two paintings came into existence, apparently in parallel, is a mystery that is arguably the greatest in the whole history of art. What we do know is that the Lansdowne Yarnwinder was created, in or around 1501, under the auspices of Fra Pietro de Novellara, the head of the Florentine Carmelites, and that its subsequent history included periods in Milan and Venice. On the other hand, the Buccleuch was sent to the king of France’s domain at Blois.

Various technical studies have been carried out in the past, but none has succeeded in establishing a priority. Martin Kemp and Thereza Wells likewise nail their colours firmly to the fence, refusing to favour one or the other.

Interesting and historically important as these investigations are, one must ask if they get us very far. For me, at least, the real significance of both versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder is that they are powerful artistic insights by Leonardo into the mystery of man’s redemption.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder: a Scientific and Historical Detective Story

Martin Kemp and Thereza Wells

Zidane Press, 240 pp, £25.99 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A tale of two ladies'