Titian painted this picture when he was in his early twenties, at a time when private portraits of individual women were still rare. We don‘t know the identity of the sitter, if indeed this is a portrait in the traditional sense, rather than a general picture of a woman designed to encourage such commissions. The title La Schiavona, meaning ’the Dalmatian woman‘, was given to the picture in the seventeenth century.
’La Schiavona‘ is self-possessed and has a commanding gaze unlike any woman in an earlier European portrait. Titian’s approach is original not only because the painting is three-quarter length and apparently life-sized but also because it was painted to make an impact from a distance.
The profile bust portrait, inspired by ancient Roman sculpture and cameos, appears to represent the sitter herself but may commemorate a member of her family. It may relate to the contemporary debate about the rival merits of painting and sculpture. The letters ’T.V.' inscribed on the parapet stand for Tiziano Veccellio (Titian).
Titian painted this portrait when he was in his early twenties. The title La Schiavona, meaning ‘the Dalmatian woman’, was given to the picture in the seventeenth century. Dalmatia, on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, was a colony of the Venetian Republic from 1420 to 1797.
We don‘t know the identity of the sitter, who appears remarkably self-possessed and has a commanding gaze unlike any woman in an earlier European portrait. The very strong sense of realism and physical presence was also new. The picture is original not only because the portrait is three-quarter length and apparently life-sized – it is unusually large for a portrait – but also because it was painted to make an impact from a distance.
Portraits of women were unusual in Venice and also uncommon in Titian’s work in the early years of the sixteenth century. Those he did paint, with the exception of anonymous beauties, were the wives of great princes. This has led some to believe that this portrait represents Catarina Cornaro (1454–1510), the exiled Queen of Cyprus. However, since she retained her rank in exile she would probably have been portrayed with some evidence that she was a queen, and she does not look much like confirmed portraits of Caterina.
Although she wears two thin gold rings set with gems on her left hand, a fine gold chain around her neck and there are gold threads in her silk hair bag, the woman’s costume is not opulent. Her dress is made of dyed wool, and the tiny tufts of blue and red thread at the neckline suggest that it is woven from both colours. It has been painted with a crimson glaze over a pale ultramarine blue. In his handling and treatment of transparent fabrics, such as the veil over the woman’s shoulders, we see the starting point of Titian’s mature style.
Her dress and hair are very like those of the mother depicted by Titian in his fresco The Miracle of the Speaking Child for the Scuola del Santo, Padua, dated 1511. It seems likely that he used the same model, suggesting that this portrait may not have been commissioned by a Venetian aristocrat but that it was painted by Titian to encourage such commissions, rather than being a portrait in the traditional sense.
Many changes were made during painting. Originally there was part of a circular window in the upper right of the canvas. The shape of the parapet was also altered. As the paint of the parapet has become more transparent with age, the woman’s dress has started to show through the raised portion decorated with the profile relief. Evidence of a foreshortened dish and a skull has also been found, although neither was finished.
The profile bust portrait, inspired by ancient Roman sculpture and cameos, appears to represent the sitter herself but may commemorate a member of her family. It must have prompted Titian’s more educated public to think of the contemporary debate about the rival claims made for the arts, particularly painting and sculpture. If the painting was not a commissioned portrait but was perhaps made from a model in the sitter’s household, it may always have been intended to prove the powers of painting over those of sculpture. The letters ’T.V.' inscribed on the parapet below the woman stand for Tiziano Veccellio (Titian).
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