I have over the past blogs featured paintings of a women whose facial beauty I find quite stunning and have commented at length on their great beauty. Two especially come to mind, Jeunesse Dorée by Gerard Brockhurst (My Daily Art Display May 16th 2011) and Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina (My Daily Art Display May 1st 2012). I mention this because today I am featuring another such painting which is a portrait of an exceptionally beautiful woman. The title of the painting is simply, Portrait of a Woman and the artist is Bartolomeo Veneto. I will look at the painting in detail later and explore the mystery of whose portrait it might be but first let me tell you a little about the artist.
Bartolomeo Veneto was born at the end of the fifteenth century but little is known of his early upbringing and family life. The first time his signature was found on a painting, was on his work entitled Virgin and Child and it was dated 1502. The signature itself gives an insight into his early days as he signed it:
“… bartolamio mezo mezo cremonexe venizian e…”
which when roughly translated means:
“…Bartolomeo half-Venetian and half Cremonese…”
In his early days he worked in Veneto, in North East Italy, Venice itself and Lombardy, which has its border to the west of Veneto. Whilst in Venice he trained under Gentile Bellini, who was the most prestigious painter in Venice in the early sixteenth century. Bartolomeo Veneto concentrated most of his art on portraiture and for that he received many commissions.
It is thought that around 1507 Bartolomeo worked at the Este court in Ferrara, which was ruled by the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I d’Este who in 1502 married for the second time. His new wife was none other than Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso was her third husband. During his time at the court Bartolomeo gilded frames and made carnival decorations and completed a painting depicting the Virgin and Saints. After three years at the court Bartolomeo moved on and he is reported to have been in Padua in 1512 and Milan eight years later and it was here that his portraiture became influenced by the portraits by Leonardo da Vinci who had been in this Italian city some years earlier.
Today’s featured painting by Bartolomeo Veneto, which he completed around 1525, is entitled Portrait of a Woman and is now housed in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. I suppose the first question one asks when looking at this beautiful half-naked woman is who is she? There is no degree of certainty as to the answer but it is thought to be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia. What makes her stand out is the fact that the artist has placed her, in three-quarter profile, dressed in a white tunic against a black background and he would use this black background technique in other portraits.
Although she has turned to the left she keeps eye contact with us. Although her left breast is bared, it is her gaze that catches our attention. As we look at her we are almost mesmerized by that stare. The way she looks at us is in some ways unnerving. She has captured our attention.
Observe the ringlets of her golden hair as it cascades down her shoulders. See how Bartolomeo has painted each strand of it in detail. It is this extraordinary attention to detail that made his portraits so popular and led to many commissions from wealthy patrons. This tempera and oil on wood panel bears the name of the ancient goddess of spring, Flora and she was often a character portrayed in Renaissance art. In her right hand, she delicately holds up to us, between her slim index finger and thumb, a small posy of wild flowers consisting of daisies, anemones and buttercups,. These three flowers are attributes of Zephyr’s wife Flora, the goddess who ushered in spring. This is her offering to us.
A lavish jewel adorns her forehead. Above the jewel is a blue silk band and her hair is covered in a veil which is crowned with myrtle, all of which lead us to believe that this woman is married. Another jewel hangs between her breasts on a pendant, the placing of which adds to the sensuality of the portrait. Having said that, I believe there is also chasteness in the way the artist has portrayed the woman. Could this then be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia? The same Lucrezia Borgia who was one of the daughters of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later to become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza Cattanei? Could this be the portrait of a woman who was accused of incest with both her father and her brother Cesare? Could this beautiful and delicate-looking woman be the infamous female who was accused of poisoning many of her adversaries and who had a string of extra-marital affairs?
So, are we looking at a beauty or a beast and is this a true likeness of Lucrezia Borgia?