fig. 1
Unknown Ferrarese artist

‘Le nostre done cornute, cum tanti balci … tanti rechami’ (‘Our horn-wearing ladies, with their many balzi … many embroideries’)

Ludovico Carbone, Ferrarese poet and academic Facezie (1466–71)

Introduction

The 2006 technical examination and conservation treatment of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Profile portrait of a lady, c. 1465 (fig. 1), has served as an essential prerequisite towards the reassessment of this painting via technical and stylistic aspects of the work. We are now well placed to further enrich our understanding of it – including a possible dating and origin of the portrait – through a more detailed study of the highly distinctive clothing and adornment worn by the sitter.1 I wish to express my gratitude to Carl Villis for inviting me to take part in this rewarding collaborative study. It underlines the importance of adopting a multi-disciplinary approach, not only in the service of art history but also its twin pursuit, the history of dress.

It was said of her …

To date, the only study of the portrait from a vestmental point of view has been Patricia Simons’s admirable examination of the painting in 1987.2 Patricia Simons, ‘A profile portrait of a Renaissance woman in the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 28, 1987, pp. 34–52 ( also available online at: http://publications.ngv.vic.gov.au/artjournal/a-profile-portrait-of-a-renaissance-woman-in-the-national-gallery-of-victoria/#.VCw87BZkiPk). Although this study will examine and challenge some of Simons’s assumptions, it does so in the knowledge that twenty-five years ago the historical study of Italian fashion was, with the notable exception of the monumental studies of Rosita Levi Pisetzky, sporadic and discontinuous.3 See Rosita Levi Pisetzky, Storia del Costume in Italia, vols 1–5, Istituto Editoriale Italiano Treccani, Milan, Italy, 1964–69.

While Simons may have successfully identified the type of hairstyle depicted in the portrait by likening it to the Parisian alla Parigina style, including the horned a corna headdress (known in Italy as alla di là to denote their transalpine origin), the chronological evolution of these types of hairstyles requires some revision: according to Simons, such hairstyles with horns or lobes were most frequently worn during the years 1420–50, but gradually fell from favour between 1460 and 1470.4 Simons, pp. 43, 44. It is true that horned hairstyles become infrequent in Tuscany during this period; however, as will be shown below, they were subject to revival, and can be documented in northern Italy during the 1460s, particularly in Ferrara and Mantua.

As for the head brooch worn by the portrait’s sitter, known in Tuscany by the term brocchetta da testa and in northern Italy as fermaglio da zuffo, Simons notes the fine, almost miniaturistic character of the goldsmithing. From a typological perspective, Simons – not without some justification – draws the brooch into a Tuscan context, in particular the workshop of Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. Less pertinent, from a material perspective, are the author’s comments on the shoulder brooch crowned with a cherub or spiritello, which shall be discussed below.

In addition to revisiting some conclusions of Simons’s 1987 analysis of this portrait, this article will also examine an important aspect neglected by the previous study: the fabrics and textile patterns of the sitter’s dress, which provide important evidence with regard to the date and locale of origin of the painting. Through careful examination of all these aspects of clothing and adornment, this paper will propose a more precise dating of the portrait, updating Simons’s placing it in a generic ‘late fifteenth century’ context, sometime in the last quarter of the fifteenth century.5 I have deduced Simons’s dating from her stylistic references. She referred to the Workshop of Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo (1470) up to Ghirlandaio in The birth of the Virgin, 1485–90.

A capite usque ad pedes: new hypotheses

Profile portrait of a lady provides us with many clues about the milieu of the subject, from the hairstyle of the sitter, to the jewellery and garments she wears, and the fabrics from which these are made.

The manner in which the sitter’s hair is dressed is particularly interesting; the difference in tone between the colour of her eyebrows and her hair informs us that this was undoubtedly a woman of fashion who took to dyeing her natural brown hair a golden blonde colour, a common practice in cities of central and northern Italy during the fifteenth century. We can immediately state that the golden blonde of the sitter’s dyed hair renders a Venetian origin for the painting unlikely. Venetian fashions showed preference for either an ash blonde (similar to today’s ‘platinum blonde’, as we see, for example, in Vittore Carpaccio’s telero, The meeting of Etherius and Ursula and the departure of the pilgrims from that painter’s St Ursula cycle of 1495 or conversely, a reddish-brown known as Venetian blonde or red, as seen in two well-known paintings of the last quarter of the fifteenth century by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli, both portraying Mary Magdalene and preserved at, respectively, the Polo Museale di San Francesco in Montefiore dell’Aso in the province of Ascoli Piceno (1471–74), and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (around 1480). Simons made note of the sitter’s artificially blonde hair, viewing it – narrowly in my opinion – in the context of the eminently private circles in which this type of portrait was seen. According to Simons, in a painted portrait a lady could evade restrictions on luxury and modes of dress imposed by sumptuary laws that governed both the modification of appearances – in this case the colour of the hair – and the display of wealth through ornaments and jewellery, by having herself depicted in a fashion that would have been illegal in real life.

While it is indeed possible that the hair colour seen in the Melbourne profile portrait is an aesthetic intervention on the part of the painter, this does not necessarily mean that the portrait was intended exclusively for private consumption. According to Joseph Manca, the practice of altering a sitter’s hair colour in a painted portrait was very common in some of the northern Italian courts, such as Milan under the Sforzas and Mantua under the Gonzagas, in the court-like environment of the Bentivoglio in Bologna and, above all, in the d’Este court of Ferrara. Manca suggests that in fifteenth-century Ferrara an interest in northern European culture was keenly manifested among ancient and noble families, including the all-powerful d’Este. For the Estensi, blonde hair embodied nobility and supreme beauty. By presenting themselves as blonde, they signalled to viewers the noble origins of the family, which was traced back to Ruggero, the hero of the Chanson de Roland. According to Manca, it was a particularly Ferrarese conceit (occasionally shared by Milan, Mantua and Bologna) to deliberately alter the hair colour by having it painted as golden blonde in official representations in order to make manifest one’s noble rank.6 Joseph Manca, ‘Blond hair as a mark of nobility in Ferrarese portraiture of the Quattrocento’, in Musei Ferraresi, no. 19, 1990–91, pp. 51–60 (esp. pp. 51–2). I wish to thank Joseph Manca for his kind cooperation in promptly providing me the text of his paper.

Moving from hair colour to the headdress worn by the subject in the Melbourne portrait, special emphasis needs to be given to the positioning of the head brooch, which is set very high and far back on the head, something that accords with Tuscan, particularly Florentine, fashions, but is also occasionally to be found in north-central Italy. This fashion was particularly associated with regions ranging from the present northern Marches, to Emilia Romagna and Lombardy. Simons was therefore not entirely wrong in her assessment of the head brooch when she detected similarities with those found in portraits by Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo (fig. 5). Nonetheless, one needs to bear in mind the wide range of trade and commercial networks that linked towns and courts, particularly in central and northern Italy. In these regions the circulation of luxury goods, such as jewellery and fine fabrics, revolved around a few prominent centres of production or trade, such as Venice, Milan, Genoa, Florence and, for silk veils, Bologna. In general, the appearance of closely related types of jewellery in different works of art does not necessarily mean that the two artworks come from the same geographical area, but rather that it is the jewellery which may share a common origin. We must also bear in mind that skilled goldsmiths are known to have circulated from court to court in this period. Therefore, it is quite possible that items such as head or shoulder brooches, or pendants with gems and precious metals, can exhibit similar settings and workmanship in pictorial representations of quite different provenance.7 On the circulation of luxury jewellery at the Court of the Gonzaga in Mantua, see Giancarlo Malacarne, Fruscianti vestimenti e scintillanti gioie, vol. 1, Linea Quattro, Verona, 2012, pp. 460–1, 463–5. It is worth noting, in this context, the typological affinity between the head brooch in the NGV’s Profile portrait of a lady (fig. 1) with the jewelled collar worn by Francesco II Gonzaga as a young man, in a portrait by Baldassarre d’Este (fig. 2).

Rather than dwelling on the formal characteristics of the jewellery itself, it is therefore perhaps more productive to focus on the way it is worn, which may tell us something about the fashions of one region compared to another. Among other portraits possibly coeval with the Melbourne profile portrait is Piero della Francesca’s famous depiction of Battista Sforza (fig. 3) and Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s marble relief of the same subject. Sforza had grown up in the court of Milan and is portrayed with an identifiably northern hairstyle (fig. 4). In contrast to these portraits, the Melbourne painting displays a head brooch resting far back on the head, in a manner characteristic of Florence but which is also to be found, in a more circumscribed way, in Ferrara and Mantua. Examples of such brooches set back on the head occur in well-known profile portraits datable to around the 1470s by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo (fig. 5), and on a female figure portrayed a few years earlier by the young Mantegna in the Paduan Ovetari Chapel and dated to 1448–57 (fig. 6). They also appear in some miniatures of the so-called Bible of Borso d’Este (1455–61, fig. 7) and in the two dancers portrayed by the Master of Hippolyta in the manuscript De pratica seu arte tripudii vulgare opusculum (On the practice or art of dancing) by Guglielmo Ebreo from Pesaro, preserved in Paris and dated 1463 (Paris, B.N.F.,Ms. It.973 f. 21v).

As well as the jewellery worn on the sitter’s head, the horned structure of the headdress in the Melbourne portrait is worthy of comment. Tuscan examples of headdresses with prominent horns can be found in a series of line-drawn mural paintings by the Pratese artist Girolamo Ristori, originally in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vai in Prato but now preserved in that city’s Museum of Mural Painting (fig. 8). The current dating of 1475–90 for these murals is probably too late from the perspective of dress history; the men’s and women’s apparel depicted are more likely to span the years 1468–75, making this cycle roughly contemporary with the Salone dei Mesi frescoes of the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.8 ‘Museo Diocesano di Pittura Murale di Prato’, Associazione Musei Ecclesiastici Italiani, <http://www.amei.biz/pagine/collezione-048>, accessed 8 Nov. 2016. Another Tuscan example of a horned headdress, typologically similar to the Ristori in Prato, is the one included in the Rape of Helen from the Cronaca fiorentina figurata, datable between 1470 and 1475, and preserved in the British Museum.

These coeval Tuscan iconographic examples, together with miniatures from the Bible of Borso d’Este (1455–61) and the frescoes from the Salone dei Mesi of Schifanoia Palace in Ferrara,9 Examples of high-horned headgear are shown respectively in the months of April (lower register) and August (upper register). along with Ludovico Carbone’s comments in his Facezie (1466–71),10 Lodovico Carbone, ‘Facezia XXXI’, in Abd-El-Kader Salza (ed.), Facezie di Lodovico Carbone, Livorno, Raffaello Giusti Editore, 1900, p. 30 (author’s translation). all dispel, in my opinion, the incorrect assertion that by 1470 these ‘horned’ hairstyles were either on the way out or entirely out of fashion, either in Tuscany or the rest of Italy. In this regard, it is useful to recall a letter sent in 1459 by Galeazzo Sforza to his father Francesco, in which, while attending the festivities given for the arrival of Pope Pius II in Florence, he notes that among the 150 ladies present, 50 wore ‘the high French horned headdresses embroidered with pearls and silver’.11 Paola Venturelli, ‘Copricapi e acconciature femminili nella Lombardia delle Signorie’, in Aldo Castellano (ed.), La Lombardia delle signorie, Electa Editrice, Milano, 1986, p. 269. And in 1492 both Beatrice d’Este and Isabella of Aragon are described ‘with the horn above their heads’. Indeed, it appears horned headdresses enjoyed a revival in the last decade of the century in response to the neo-feudal mood of the age of Ludovico il Moro. Therefore it seems, pace Simons, quite incorrect to speak tout court of the ‘disappearance’ of horned headwear by the 1470s. Instead we witness an evolution of their form throughout this period, as they appear in variants composed of small, lateral horns before returning into fashion – around the end of the fifteenth century – as a kind of horned headdress, similar to the hennin from northern Europe.

The distinctive way in which linen cloths forming part of the headdress are wrapped over the ears of the sitter is also worthy of note: this is more in keeping with fashions from Emilia and the Po Valley areas rather than Tuscany, where it was more common to use gauze to cover the ear. But the possibility that the use of benducce (bands of linen) as an alternative for the gauze cannot be excluded, as we see in Lo Scheggia’s Portrait of a lady in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There is another portrait attributed to Lo Scheggia at the Musée Jacquemart-André, which has in common with the Melbourne portrait linen bands wrapped around the ears of the sitter. In both we see the benducce fully cover the ears and wound up across the top of the head to prevent loose locks of hair from falling forward from the temple.

Along with horned headdresses supported by wrappings and substructures, a few rare images exist from the second half of the fifteenth century that display horns made of bunches of long wavy hair or carrying thin, veil-like strands of hair, just as we see in the Melbourne profile portrait. One of the most significant Italian precedents for this transalpine style is found in Matteo de’ Pasti’s famous medal portrait of Isotta degli Atti (1432–1474), consort of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta of Rimini and the daughter of a wealthy Riminese merchant. In this medal, first produced in 1446, Isotta is shown with horns of hair and crossed ribbons on which a brooch is set far back at the top of her head (fig. 10). Unfortunately, the paucity of surviving fifteenth-century Riminese iconography does not allow us to identify any specific local vestmental traditions of the area. However, if we survey the courts of northern central Italy we learn of done cornute (horned women) spoken of by the Ferrarese Ludovico Carbone and see them appear in the pages of the Biblia bela (The Magnificent Bible) of Borso d’Este; we also see the young Barbara Gonzaga in Mantegna’s Camera Picta in Mantua (fig. 11) wearing an antique-style head covering like a tutulus made of hair, possibly a hairpiece given shape via a substructure or frame.12 The tutulus is a particular conical hairstyle-headdress of Etruscan-Roman origin, generally set very high on the head. This kind of tutulus is wrapped with benducce in a graceful arrangement very similar to the one found in the Melbourne portrait. In the miniatures in the so-called Bible of Borso d’Este the balzo di capelli style – possibly a genuine Ferrarese hairstyle – appears frequently enough to suggest a distinct local preference for styles characterised by the presence of loose, frisées hair at the back. An echo of such hairstyles is recognisable in the Muse Urania from Ferrara’s Studiolo of Belfiore. The recurrent hairstyles shown in the Bible of Borso d’Este, consisting of rearward high masses of hair with extensive shaving of the forehead, short, wavy locks around the temples, and occasionally twisted benducce, probably prove the existence of these fashionable hairstyles in the region of the cities of Ferrara, Bologna, Modena and Mantua, reflecting the origin and formation of the leading artists of the so-called Officina Ferrarese, the workshop of artists entrusted by Borso d’Este with the decoration of this masterpiece in 1455.13In 1455 Borso d’Este commissioned the decoration of his Biblia bela to a group of leading artists; among them were: Taddeo Crivelli (Ferrara, 1425 – Bologna, 1479), Franco de’ Russi (Mantua c. 1430 – post 1480), Giovanni da Gaibana (Gaibana -?), Marco dell’ Avogaro (active in Ferrara 1449–76) and Giorgio d’Alemagna, known as Zorzo Todesco (Modena c. 1420 – therein 1479). This hypothesis appears to receive support from images of noblewomen with small horns of hair in the mural paintings of the Sala del Pane in El Bentivoglio – a leisure residence, built by Giovanni II Bentivoglio between 1475 and 1481, northeast of Bologna on the road to Ferrara (fig. 12).

Between 1460 and 1470, horned headdresses are commonly found in northern and central Italy over an area stretching from today’s Lombardy down to the Marches. It is important to stress that the circulation of fashionable styles among the major Italian courts was quite common. Expedients, such as puve – dolls that closely replicated the types of hairstyles and fashionable clothes of a specific geographic area – suggest a degree of transversality and homogeneity in fashion trends, which must be taken into account in this period. The two parts of the so-called Barberini panels by Fra Carnevale (Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini) from Urbino, namely the Presentation of the Virgin in the temple, dating to 1467 and originally commissioned for the Oratory of Santa Maria della Bella in Urbino (now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), and the The Birth of the Virgin (now in in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts), are important for our purposes because they witness the contemporaneous presence of various kinds of headdresses with either long or short horns, along with benducce wrapped around the head with short, curly locks beside the ears in a fashion not dissimilar to the ones present in the Melbourne profile portrait.

Rather more northern – or, more specifically, from the Po valley region – than Tuscan, these short, wavy locks appear in the Brera portrait of Bianca Maria Visconti, formerly attributed to Bonifacio Bembo, datable to the 1460s, as well as in other significant examples by Andrea Mantegna in the oculus of the Camera Picta of the Ducal Palace in Mantua (fig. 13). In the latter we see, in addition to a lady dressed and coiffed à cornetti (with small horns), a semi-dressed companion in her chemise; both are wearing benducce over their middle-parted hair in styles revealing wavy locks at their temples, which, when viewed in profile, resemble the style of the NGV’s Profile portrait of a lady, with its high-shaved forehead.

The Ferrarese female profile in the Bible of Borso d’Este, preserved at the Biblioteca Estense in Modena (fig. 7), surprisingly reveals a hairstyle with horns harnessed in a sort of rigid net, with small locks of hair falling loose on the temple in a way that is directly comparable to the style in the Melbourne portrait.

In Profile portrait of a lady, the long, thin, frizzy veils falling from the horns of hair can be traced back to the silky, diaphanous veils woven in Bologna already in the fourteenth century. A characteristic example of such a veil, even though much later (the late eighteenth century) is the surviving veil fragment attached to a request forwarded by Filippo Trevisani of Verona on 19 December 1782: ‘a piece of white fine veil tritolo, as the example here included’. The surviving veil is in natural silk, with creping made after weaving (Bologna, State Archive, Negozio per la fabbrica dei veli, famiglia Bettini, lettere ricevute).14 Marta Cuoghi Costantini, Impalpabili orpelli della moda: i veli di seta bolognesi in Il filo della seta. Tessuti antichi in Emilia Romagna, Istituto per i Beni Artistici Culturali e Naturali della Regione Emilia Romagna, Clueb, Bologna, 2005, pp. 117–20. For the bolognese frizzy veils in fourteenth century, see Angela Orlandi, ‘Impalpabili e trasparenti: i veli bolognesi nella documentazione datiniana’, in Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli, Maria Grazia Nico Ottaviani and Gabriella Zarri (eds), Il velo in area mediterranea fra storia e simbolo. Tardo Medioevo-prima Età moderna, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2014, pp. 307–24 (esp. pp. 312, 317). In the Melbourne portrait, these extra-fine veils are attached to the peaks of the horns with headed pins called agucchia (in central Italy), or agugia da pomella or da pomello (in northern Italy). In the fifteenth century such pins were used quite commonly to fix ribbons and veils. Being functional elements in the service of hairstyles and headdresses, they were rarely left visible in Italy, although some examples where these pins are partly seen can be found in Tuscan-Florentine paintings from the second half of the fifteenth century. Unconcealed pins are more characteristic of northern Europe dress, for example in Flanders, where extra-fine cloths held in place on the head by visible pins can be seen in Robert Campin’s Portrait of a woman (fig. 14).

Zoglielo D’ Oro Cun un Agnolo D’ Oro in una nuvola

A highly distinctive element of the Melbourne portrait is the shoulder brooch with natural pearls and rubies in a gold setting in the shape of a cloud, topped with a cherub. These so-called zoielli da spalla, which were very popular from the mid fifteenth century, served to emphasise the shoulder’s position in relation to the dress. Derived from the iconography of cupids and victories that had characterised Hellenistic goldsmith production, in the fifteenth century the cherub motif was linked to nuptial symbolism. It also evoked qualities associated with the archangel, which, in turn, originally derived from the Greek god Hermes’s role of psychopomp (that is, the divine guide of departed souls to the realm of the dead).

The cherub motif is found in the region of Milan in Lombardy from the turn of the fourteenth century through to the end of the fifteenth century, and was particularly popular around the third quarter of the Quattrocento.15 See Paola Venturelli, Smalto, oro e preziosi: oreficeria e arti suntuarie nel Ducato di Milano tra Visconti e Sforza, Marsilio, Venezia, 2003, pp. 73–6; Serena Franzon, ‘Il fermaglio con l’angelo nel Quattrocento: ricerche e confronti tra pittura e scultura’, in OADI, Rivista dell’ Osservatorio per le Arti Decorative in Italia, issue 5, no. 9, June 2014, p. 16. Therefore it is not out of the question that during this period shoulder brooches or angel pendants of Lombard origin might have circulated throughout other Italian centres, to appear in portraits from different regions of central and northern Italy, such as the portrait of Bianca Maria Visconti and in later female portraits by Tuscan artists such as Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. In her observations about the shoulder brooch, Patricia Simons omitted analysis of the distinctive characteristics of the goldsmithing work, choosing instead to emphasise the possible sacred symbolism of the object, namely the Lady’s blessed status in paradise.16 Simons, p. 43. Although we cannot exclude the possibility that the Melbourne portrait might be posthumous, by virtue of the cherub’s associations with the ‘angel-Hermes’, Simons’s proposed interpretation of the iconography of the brooch is not plausible, since in this case, its probable Lombard or northern manufacture indicates an iconography that was favoured in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and consequently, of trade outside the borders of Lombardy; ornaments featuring cherubs are documented around this time in both Milan and Bologna. The painting portraying Saint Catherine of Bologna with three donors by the Master of the Baroncelli portraits in the Courtauld Gallery, London, dated between 1470 and 1480, demonstrates the presence of this ornament in the region around Bologna – it depicts in the foreground a young woman, a member of the Bolognese Loiani family, wearing a sumptuous shoulder brooch with a cherub (fig. 15).

Finally, since jewels incorporating the cherub motif are often associated with weddings, it is worth considering that the shoulder brooch in the Melbourne portrait might in fact suggest a reminiscence – given the mature age of the woman – of an engagement or betrothal, but interpreted from a merely symbolic point of view.17 See Venturelli, Smalto, oro e preziosi, p. 76. For the documentary and iconographic records in the Bolognese area see Franzon, p. 15; and Luke Syson and Dora Thornton, Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy, Getty Trust Publications, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001, p. 47. A similar iconography was employed by Ghirlandaio in the posthumous portraits of Giovanna Albizzi-Tornabuoni as late as 1485–90, where Giovanna is depicted as an eternal bride, as shown in the tempera on panel in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid and in the frescoes of the Vistitation in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Contemporary inventories make note of particular types of precious stones for shoulder brooches, such as pearls (symbolising virginity and purity) and rubies (as harbingers of prosperity and progeny), often paired with diamonds, promoting love and symbols of stability.18 For the symbolism of gems and stones, see Patrizia Caselli, ‘Le virtù delle gemme. Il loro significato simbolico e astrologico nella cultura umanistica e nelle credenze popolari del Quatrrocento. Il “Recupero” delle gemme antiche’, in l’Oreficeria nella Firenze del Quatrrocento. Catalogo della Mostra (Firenze 1977), Studio per Edizioni Scelte, Firenze, 1977, pp. 307–64; and Stefania Macioce, Ori nell’arte: per una storia del potere segreto delle gemme, Logart Press, Roma, 2007, pp. 15–39. Indeed, it is of especial interest that an inventory of moveable property of the House of Este (1436–37) includes a record of a ‘golden jewel, with a golden cherub in a cloud, holding in his arms a large eight sided ruby’, not dissimilar to the brooch in the Melbourne portrait.19Venturelli, Smalto, oro e preziosi, p. 74.

It is therefore conceivable that the shoulder brooch on the Melbourne portrait fits into this category, and we might therefore hypothesise a celebratory intent, meant to symbolise perhaps the virtues of a woman, and presumably a virtuous mother, either to celebrate the birth of a child some years away from marriage, or possibly the lady’s virtues in aeternum in the case of a posthumous portrait.

Finally, to conclude the excursus on jewels represented in the Melbourne portrait, I would like to briefly focus on the necklace worn by the sitter. Made up of small clusters of pearls suspended between two parallel (metal?) threads, this unusual type of jewellery – possibly what was referred to as a gorzarino – is evidenced in portraits of women from northern Italy but is hardly ever encountered in Tuscan female portraiture. This is another important clue indicating a possible north-central milieu for the portrait, reflecting fashions in vogue in the Po Valley.

Velvets, satins and allucciolati

The outfit worn by the sitter in the Melbourne portrait employs two distinct fabrics, each used in one of the outfit’s two primary components: the gown, or camora, and the overgown, known as the pellanda or sacco in northern Italy and the cioppa in Tuscany.

The camora, of which only the sleeves are partially visible, employs a fabric decorated with so-called pomegranate motifs, a term that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries could be applied to patterns employing large thistle flowers, pomegranates, pinecones or lotus flowers; the motifs could be arranged across the fabric in horizontal (de’ cammini) or vertical (a griccia) alignments. These textile patterns featured on the most precious fabrics, such as gold brocades, alto-bassi velvets (with varying heights of the pile) and allucciolati (silk velvets with loops of golden thread scattered through the pile creating a gleaming effect known as vergole d’oro or trapelanti).

In Profile portrait of a lady the pictorial rendering of the fabric suggests that it may be either a velvety satin (raso vellutato) or a cut-pile velvet known as lanciato, bouclé or liseré.

Similar textiles are depicted in the Camera Picta, 1465–74, by Andrea Mantegna, while in the registers of the Este Court Garderobe there are many mentions of so-called velvety satins, called zetani vellutati, primarily of Venetian origin, which were soon reproduced in Florence as zetani vellutati alla veniziana. Ferrara’s major sources of luxury fabrics for the Este court were Florence and Venice.20 For precise annotations on the main textile patterns depicted by Andrea Mantegna in the Camera degli Sposi, see Paola Frattaroli, ‘Gli ornati tessili nella Camera degli Sposi: appunti e anticipazioni per una ricerca’, in Vittorio Sgarbi (ed.), La scultura al tempo di Andrea Mantegna, Electa Mondatori, Milano, pp. 179–99. With regard to the Este Court of Ferrara, see Elisabetta Bazzani, “Il primato del velluto alla corte degli Este fra Quattrocento e Cinquecento”, in Marta Cuoghi Costantini and Iolanda Silvestri (eds), La collezione Gandini: tessuti del Medioevo e del Rinascimento, Museo Civico d’Arte di Modena, Bononia University Press, Bologna, 2010, pp. 83–114 (esp. pp. 90, 93).

The outer garment in the Melbourne portrait, with its wide, wing-like (ad ale) sleeves, sometimes left hanging over the back, is more suited to the cooler months of the year, due to the weight of the fabric. This overgown is ornamented with palmettes executed in the allucciolato (gleam of fireflies called lucciole) or vergolinatura technique, giving the surface its characteristic bouclé effect (fig. 16). These types of textiles were called a rizo or rizudi, and were woven in Tuscany, Lombardy, Venice and throughout the Po valley.21 See Chiara Buss, Seta oro cremisi. Segreti e tecnologia alla corte dei Visconti e degli Sforza (exhib. cat.) Cinisello Balsamo, Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2009, pp. 92–3, 165–6 (author’s translation). As for the motif of the palmette (anthemion) itself, the ubiquity of its use in a revivalist manner, both in stucco friezes and in textiles, in the major Italian courts in Florence, Ferrara, Urbino, Mantua and Milan precludes us attributing to it any specific heraldic associations or associating it with any one particular court – although a striking use of such a pattern is evident in the Camera degli Sposi by Mantegna and the palmette motif can be glimpsed on the belt of Barbara Gonzaga,22 Previously noted by Frattaroli, ‘Gli ornati tessili nella Camera degli Sposi’. who married Eberhard V Württember in 1474, the year of the completion of the frescoes. But among the major Italian textile manufacturing centres of the fifteenth century – including Florence, Genoa and Milan – Venice was the most highly renowned, especially for its remarkable reproductions of Persian and other oriental textile patterns, among which palmettes feature frequently.23 See George Leland Hunter, Decorative Textiles, Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1918, p. 39.

Finally, the colour of the overdress, a deep blue, very close to the luxurious alessandrini and torchini (purplish deep blues), bears witness – along with the richness of the textile patterns and jewellery – to the very high rank of the lady portrayed.

Drawing conclusions

From the perspective of dress history, we may identify the following as critical diagnostic features of the Profile portrait of a lady:

  • the sitter’s artificially blonde hair, of particular symbolic significance among the courts of northern Italy
  • the horned headdress with extra-fine veils produced in great quantity in Bologna, but otherwise relatively rare in Italy; such a fashion may be traceable to the Malatesta court in Rimini and, in variants with smaller horns, to courts in northern Italy, such as Mantua, Ferrara and Bologna
  • the head brooch set far back on the head, according to Tuscan and Emilian custom
  • the collare (necklace) of distinctive design, present in northern Italian female portraiture, but only sporadically documented in Tuscan portraits
  • the probable Lombard and/or northern workmanship of the shoulder brooch with its cherub, an iconography that was in special favour during the last quarter of the fifteenth century and subsequently in objects traded beyond Italy’s borders
  • the overgown (pellanda or cioppa), characterised by its palmette textile patterns, made by the process of allucciolato, which with regards to its textile workmanship and design may be traced back to either Tuscany or the Po Valley, particularly Venice
  • the gown (camora or gamurra), the fabric of which is woven with pomegranate motifs of ample proportions that could reference (depending on the pictorial rendering) either Florentine or northern velvets, possibly of Venetian origin.

Having established that the most plausible dating for the portrait would be between 1460 and 1470 – more specifically around 1465 – and given the prominence of what may be described as northern clothing details such as the horned headdress; the headdress pins left visible for decorative effect as in the Northern European tradition; the fabrics of a possible Lombard-Venetian origin (without excluding Florence as a place of production); and the cherub-topped shoulder brooch of a northern if not German provenance, the painting should be placed, in my view, within an elite circle of court cities, consisting of Ferrara, Mantua and possibly Rimini, or perhaps the larger city of Bologna.

In such an environment in which official portraits of lords and allies were frequently exchanged between one court and another, a relevant typological precedent for the profile portrait’s hairstyle is provided by Matteo de’ Pasti’s medal of Isotta degli Atti. The vestmental elements displayed in Profile portrait of a lady are associated with a social milieu of absolute privilege and wealth, and consequently indicate the social status of the lady portrayed.

It therefore seems self-evident to direct any subsequent investigation aimed at identifying the portrait’s sitter towards women of great importance within those locations; specifically to women who might have had connections with northern European courts, leading to the incorporation in their mode of dress of some elements of northern fashions. In addition to the abovementioned Isotta degli Atti from Rimini, who was born in 1432, and would therefore be about thirty-three years old at the time of this portrait (c. 1465), another candidate – especially given a certain family resemblance in their features – may be Barbara of Brandenburg, the wife of Ludovico Gonzaga, portrayed by Mantegna in his Camera Picta (fig. 17).24 Barbara Hohenzollern (1422–1481), eldest daughter of John, called the Alchemist and the son of the Margrave of Brandenburg Frederick I of Hohenzollern and Barbara of Saxony. In November 1433 Barbara, aged just eleven, arrived in Mantua, where the wedding ceremonies took place. By the succession of Ludwig III to his father Gian Francesco, who died in 1444, Barbara became the Marchioness of Mantua, personally ruling the small state alongside her husband.

At the end of this investigation into the clothing and ornament of the portrait it is up to art historians to consider the plausibility of any hypothesis about the sitter’s identity. Nevertheless, the findings of this study appear consistent with that put forward by Carl Villis, that the portrait may be the work of a Ferrarese painter, datable to around 1465. In this case, no other description could be more fitting than the satirical piece provided by the Ferrarese poet Ludovico Carbone, which provides the title of this paper:

Our horn-wearing ladies, with their many balzi, many clogs, many decorations, many frills, many veils, many embroideries, many tails, many chiavacuori [literally translated as ‘key to the heart’ but meaning brooches or belts] … this final one they well and truly lack.25Carbone, p. 30 (author’s translation).

This alludes perhaps to the only thing the ladies of Ferrara did not possess amidst all their ornaments: a noble heart!

 

Elisabetta Gnignera is a specialist in Italian Renaissance fashions and hairstyles, and author of I soperchi ornamenti. Copricapi e acconciature nell’ Italia del Quattrocento (2010), (in 2016)

Notes

1

I wish to express my gratitude to Carl Villis for inviting me to take part in this rewarding collaborative study. It underlines the importance of adopting a multi-disciplinary approach, not only in the service of art history but also its twin pursuit, the history of dress.

2

Patricia Simons, ‘A profile portrait of a Renaissance woman in the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 28, 1987, pp. 34–52 ( also available online at: http://publications.ngv.vic.gov.au/artjournal/a-profile-portrait-of-a-renaissance-woman-in-the-national-gallery-of-victoria/#.VCw87BZkiPk).

3

See Rosita Levi Pisetzky, Storia del Costume in Italia, vols 1–5, Istituto Editoriale Italiano Treccani, Milan, Italy, 1964–69.

4

Simons, pp. 43, 44.

5

I have deduced Simons’s dating from her stylistic references. She referred to the Workshop of Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo (1470) up to Ghirlandaio in The birth of the Virgin, 1485–90.

6

Joseph Manca, ‘Blond hair as a mark of nobility in Ferrarese portraiture of the Quattrocento’, in Musei Ferraresi, no. 19, 1990–91, pp. 51–60 (esp. pp. 51–2). I wish to thank Joseph Manca for his kind cooperation in promptly providing me the text of his paper.

7

On the circulation of luxury jewellery at the Court of the Gonzaga in Mantua, see Giancarlo Malacarne, Fruscianti vestimenti e scintillanti gioie, vol. 1, Linea Quattro, Verona, 2012, pp. 460–1, 463–5.

8

‘Museo Diocesano di Pittura Murale di Prato’, Associazione Musei Ecclesiastici Italiani, <http://www.amei.biz/pagine/collezione-048>, accessed 8 Nov. 2016.

9

Examples of high-horned headgear are shown respectively in the months of April (lower register) and August (upper register).

10

Lodovico Carbone, ‘Facezia XXXI’, in Abd-El-Kader Salza (ed.), Facezie di Lodovico Carbone, Livorno, Raffaello Giusti Editore, 1900, p. 30 (author’s translation).

11

Paola Venturelli, ‘Copricapi e acconciature femminili nella Lombardia delle Signorie’, in Aldo Castellano (ed.), La Lombardia delle signorie, Electa Editrice, Milano, 1986, p. 269.

12

The tutulus is a particular conical hairstyle-headdress of Etruscan-Roman origin, generally set very high on the head.

13

In 1455 Borso d’Este commissioned the decoration of his Biblia bela to a group of leading artists; among them were: Taddeo Crivelli (Ferrara, 1425 – Bologna, 1479), Franco de’ Russi (Mantua c. 1430 – post 1480), Giovanni da Gaibana (Gaibana -?), Marco dell’ Avogaro (active in Ferrara 1449–76) and Giorgio d’Alemagna, known as Zorzo Todesco (Modena c. 1420 – therein 1479).

14

Marta Cuoghi Costantini, Impalpabili orpelli della moda: i veli di seta bolognesi in Il filo della seta. Tessuti antichi in Emilia Romagna, Istituto per i Beni Artistici Culturali e Naturali della Regione Emilia Romagna, Clueb, Bologna, 2005, pp. 117–20. For the bolognese frizzy veils in fourteenth century, see Angela Orlandi, ‘Impalpabili e trasparenti: i veli bolognesi nella documentazione datiniana’, in Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli, Maria Grazia Nico Ottaviani and Gabriella Zarri (eds), Il velo in area mediterranea fra storia e simbolo. Tardo Medioevo-prima Età moderna, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2014, pp. 307–24 (esp. pp. 312, 317).

15

See Paola Venturelli, Smalto, oro e preziosi: oreficeria e arti suntuarie nel Ducato di Milano tra Visconti e Sforza, Marsilio, Venezia, 2003, pp. 73–6; Serena Franzon, ‘Il fermaglio con l’angelo nel Quattrocento: ricerche e confronti tra pittura e scultura’, in OADI, Rivista dell’ Osservatorio per le Arti Decorative in Italia, issue 5, no. 9, June 2014, p. 16.

16

Simons, p. 43.

17

See Venturelli, Smalto, oro e preziosi, p. 76. For the documentary and iconographic records in the Bolognese area see Franzon, p. 15; and Luke Syson and Dora Thornton, Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy, Getty Trust Publications, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001, p. 47.

18

For the symbolism of gems and stones, see Patrizia Caselli, ‘Le virtù delle gemme. Il loro significato simbolico e astrologico nella cultura umanistica e nelle credenze popolari del Quatrrocento. Il “Recupero” delle gemme antiche’, in l’Oreficeria nella Firenze del Quatrrocento. Catalogo della Mostra (Firenze 1977), Studio per Edizioni Scelte, Firenze, 1977, pp. 307–64; and Stefania Macioce, Ori nell’arte: per una storia del potere segreto delle gemme, Logart Press, Roma, 2007, pp. 15–39.

19

Venturelli, Smalto, oro e preziosi, p. 74.

20

For precise annotations on the main textile patterns depicted by Andrea Mantegna in the Camera degli Sposi, see Paola Frattaroli, ‘Gli ornati tessili nella Camera degli Sposi: appunti e anticipazioni per una ricerca’, in Vittorio Sgarbi (ed.), La scultura al tempo di Andrea Mantegna, Electa Mondatori, Milano, pp. 179–99. With regard to the Este Court of Ferrara, see Elisabetta Bazzani, “Il primato del velluto alla corte degli Este fra Quattrocento e Cinquecento”, in Marta Cuoghi Costantini and Iolanda Silvestri (eds), La collezione Gandini: tessuti del Medioevo e del Rinascimento, Museo Civico d’Arte di Modena, Bononia University Press, Bologna, 2010, pp. 83–114 (esp. pp. 90, 93).

21

See Chiara Buss, Seta oro cremisi. Segreti e tecnologia alla corte dei Visconti e degli Sforza (exhib. cat.) Cinisello Balsamo, Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2009, pp. 92–3, 165–6 (author’s translation).

22

Previously noted by Frattaroli, ‘Gli ornati tessili nella Camera degli Sposi’.

23

See George Leland Hunter, Decorative Textiles, Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1918, p. 39.

24

Barbara Hohenzollern (1422–1481), eldest daughter of John, called the Alchemist and the son of the Margrave of Brandenburg Frederick I of Hohenzollern and Barbara of Saxony. In November 1433 Barbara, aged just eleven, arrived in Mantua, where the wedding ceremonies took place. By the succession of Ludwig III to his father Gian Francesco, who died in 1444, Barbara became the Marchioness of Mantua, personally ruling the small state alongside her husband.

25

Carbone, p. 30 (author’s translation).