This portrait had previously been considered to be that of a young man. This is largely on account of the dagger which is held in the sitter’s hands and the belief that no single Italian Renaissance portrait of a woman ever showed the sitter holding a weapon. However, certain aspects of the painting indicate that the sitter is indeed a woman. The myrtle bush and flowers behind the sitter signify the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus, a timeless symbol of feminine beauty. Myrtle was a commonly used emblem of Venus in Italian painting from the mid-fifteenth century and into the early sixteenth century. The Latin inscription on the paper cartellino in front of the sitter reads “Brighter is the virtue reigning in this beautiful body”, an adaptation of two lines from Virgil’s Aeneid – a text revered in Renaissance Ferrara. Throughout the fifteenth century and sixteenth centuries the pairing of the themes of Virtue and Beauty refers overwhelmingly to women and female beauty, and some of the most famous portraits of the time contain inscriptions in Latin interweaving these themes.
In Renaissance narrative painting the image of a woman holding a dagger refers to the Ancient Roman heroine, Lucretia. Lucretia took her own life by plunging a dagger into her chest to avenge the dishonour brought upon her by a nobleman. Her sacrifice ultimately led to the establishment of the Roman republic. During the Renaissance, Lucretia was venerated as the most popular icon of female virtue. Therefore, the dagger can be interpreted as a visual symbol relating to the Virtue of the inscription.
Symbols indicating the name of the sitter were also popular devices in this era, so it can also be assumed that the woman in the portrait is named Lucretia. Given that the portrait has the characteristics of paintings made in Ferrara around 1520, there is only one likely candidate: Lucrezia Borgia, the Duchess of Ferrara. Portraits of women at this time were rare, and only women of nobility would have a portrait made in their honour. Lucrezia was the subject of numerous comparisons to Venus and the ancient Lucretia by Italy’s most renowned Humanist poets, including Pietro Bembo and Ariosto. Moreover, Venus was used as a Borgia family emblem. History has left us only one reliable image of Lucrezia’s face: a portrait medal in bronze, made in 1502. Her profile reveals a nose, chin and lips very close in shape and proportion to the painted portrait. This similarity and the numerous specific references to Lucrezia and Renaissance Ferrara presents a compelling argument that this portrait is indeed of that city’s famous Duchess. The portrait is most likely posthumous.
Text by Carl Villis © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia