We do not know this woman’s identity, but the enamel and gold coronet she wears suggests she may be of high rank. The pattern embroidered on her white satin sleeves could be her family’s heraldic device or perhaps a personal emblem.
The fabric of her dress resembles a watered silk threaded with gold, and could originally have been dark blue or violet. Her fine white linen shirt is of an unusual design, with six openings at the neck each fastened by petal-shaped enamel clasps tied with black laces. The hexagonal beads of the woman’s necklace are decorated with symbols, and letters that probably form parts of words from a prayer or a religious text. Among the symbols are the Cross, a ladder, pincers and three nails, which are all associated with Christ’s crucifixion.
The portrait’s condition makes it hard to be sure, but it looks like the work of Bartolomeo Veneto, who may have painted it in Ferrara during the early years of his career.
This portrait was once believed to be of the infamous noblewoman Lucrezia Borgia, but it does not look like other portraits of her. The enamel and gold coronet of leaves and berries the lady wears around her head suggests she may be of high rank, although we do not know who she is.
The pattern embroidered on her white satin sleeves may give a clue. It represents a staff crossed by two other staffs and a black feather, which could be a heraldic device of the woman’s family or perhaps a personal emblem, known in Italian as an impresa. Bartolomeo Veneto incorporated heraldic or emblematic patterns in the clothes worn by sitters in his other portraits. The subject of his Portrait of a Young Man (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) has a labyrinth embroidered in gold thread on his chest and branches embroidered on his hat.
The woman’s dress now appears to be black with touches of yellow to represent gold. The fabric may be supposed to resemble a watered silk and could originally have been a dark blue or violet colour. The fine white linen shirt, or camicia, is of an unusual design, with six openings at the neck each fastened by petal-shaped enamel clasps tied with black laces with gold points.
The hexagonal beads of the woman’s necklace, separated by knots on a black cord, are decorated on all faces with emblems or letters in black, red and white. The letters probably form parts of words from a prayer or a religious text. Among the emblems are the Cross, a ladder, pincers and three nails which are all associated with Christ’s Passion. A very similar necklace made of gilt bronze is in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin. Around the woman’s waist is a belt made of large, hollow gold beads, each consisting of a pair of cones joined at the base. Such belts were popular in north Italy in the first half of the sixteenth century and they often appear in paintings.
The portrait’s poor condition makes it difficult to be certain that it was painted by Bartolomeo Veneto. Elements of the lady’s costume and the long corkscrew locks of hair either side of the face are also found in early sixteenth-century paintings from Bologna and Lombardy. The distinctive neckline of the shirt, with its enamel clasps and laces, is also seen in frescoes by the Ferrarese painter Garofalo at the Palazzo Costabili in Ferrara. Bartolomeo Veneto may have painted the portrait in Ferrara during the early years of his career.
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