Golden hair, rosy lips and pale skin were the ideal of feminine beauty in fifteenth-century Florence. All feature in this lady’s portrait, which was probably made to celebrate her marriage.
Around her long neck she wears a strand of orange beads with a pendant set with a large pearl. A cluster of pearls – symbolic of purity, a crucial virtue for marriage – crown her elaborate hairstyle. Baldovinetti has used tiny white dots to emphasise the shape and sheen of the jewels.
Upon the lady’s large puffed sleeve is an embroidery of three palm leaves bound by a ribbon and framed by two gold-veined feathers. This was most probably her future husband’s coat of arms. It was the custom for the groom’s family to provide new clothes and jewellery for the bride. The portrait commemorates these as much as the woman herself and the prominence of their heraldry acts as a visual seal of the marital alliance.
Golden hair, rosy lips and pale skin were the ideal of feminine beauty in fifteenth-century Florence, and were features of images of the Virgin Mary and pagan goddesses as well as portraits of high-status women. Here they are paired with careful observation of the sharp lines of the woman’s long nose, revealing that this is a portrait of an individual, however ideally beautiful.
The artist has balanced the protrusion of the woman’s nose with the waves of her elaborate hairstyle, which is held together with a white band topped with a cluster of pearls. A fine black band encircles the top of her forehead, drawing attention to her fashionably high hairline. Around her long neck she wears a strand of orange beads with a pendant set with a large pearl. Baldovinetti has used tiny white dots to emphasise the shape and sheen of the beads and pearls. You can also see these little dots, so characteristic of his technique, highlighting the contours of the nose, chin and thick folds of the fabric of the sleeves.
The splendour of her outfit and the woman’s young age suggest the picture was painted as a marriage or engagement portrait. The main aim of marriage was to create alliances between families, to strengthen their political and social fortunes – and to produce children. A girl had very little choice in her husband, as the contract was arranged by her family. The image was made to show off the girl’s virtue and the prestige of the family that she would marry into, rather than her personal identity. The perfect white spherical quality of the pearl, for example, symbolised purity – an essential virtue for a young woman at marriage. According to social custom, the groom’s family were responsible for dressing the bride and they would have ordered the finest jewels and fabrics they could afford to show off their wealth and status. The cost of these items, as well as the commemoration of the marriage alliance, justified the expense of commissioning a portrait. The skill of the artist and the beauty of the bride would further enhance their reputation.
By showing the woman in profile Baldovinetti was following a conventional format for portraits in Florence that continued until about 1470. It was adopted from images of emperors on Roman coins and medals and so was a symbol of power and social rank. Renaissance artists also created medals with portraits; those showing women often featured allegories of female virtue on the reverse. Paintings of women in profile became shorthand for the nobility of their character. Here the format serves the function of allotting equal prominence to the adornment on the woman’s sleeve as to her face. This emblem, which is made up of three palm leaves bound by a ribbon and framed by two gold-veined feathers, may be her husband’s coat of arms – although no one has yet established which family it belonged to. Its prominence here acts as a visual seal of the woman’s new life as a member of her husband’s household.
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