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Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara

Dosso Dossi(1519-1530)

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria

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

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  • Title: Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara
  • Creator: Dosso DOSSI , Battista DOSSI (attributed to)
  • Date Created: (1519-1530)
  • Location Created: Italy
  • Physical Dimensions: w572 x h745 cm (Unframed)
  • Type: Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1966, © National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: oil on wood panel
  • Provenance: Collection of Lucien Bonaparte (1775–1840), Prince of Canino and Musignano (respectively 1814–40, 1824–40), Rome and Viterbo, Italy, until 1840; collection of Comte James-Alexandre de Pourtalès-Gorgier (1776–1855), Paris, before 1855; collection of the Estate of Alexandre de Pourtalès-Gorgier, Paris, 1855–65; included in the sale of the Pourtalès-Gorgier collection, Paris, 27 March– 4 April 1865, no. 96 as Portrait à mi-corps et vu de deux tiers d’un jeune seigneur inconnu by Luca Penni; from where purchased by Goupil on behalf of an unknown private collector; possibly with Henry Farrer (1798–1866, dealer), London; possibly collection of Thomas Woolner (1825–92), before 1892; collection of Sir George H. Donaldson (1845–1925, dealer-collector), London, (by 1895)–1918; exhibited Royal Academy, London, 1895, as Lucretia by Paolo Morando, lent by George Donaldson; exhibited Old Masters, Grafton Galleries, London, 1911, no. 79 as Portrait of Lucretia by Paolo Morando, owner Sir George Donaldson; with Captain Robert Langton-Douglas, Dublin, Ireland, 1918; by whom sold to Viscount Lascelles, 1918; collection of Henry George Charles Lascelles (1882–1947), Viscount Lascelles (later 6th Earl of Harewood 1929–47), Harewood House, London, 1918–65; included in Rt Hon. Earl of Harewood sale, Christie's, London, 2 July 1965, no. 85, as by Paolo Morando; purchased by Colnaghi's (dealer), London, 1965; from which acquired, on the advice of Dr. Mary Woodall, for the Felton Bequest, 1965, arrived Melbourne 1966.
  • Additional information: Dosso and Battista Dossi were Ferrarese painters who worked mostly for the court of the ruling d’Este family of Ferrara in the first half of the sixteenth century. Known for his idiosyncratic painting manner, Dosso was at the forefront of a new style of painting in Italy following the advances made by painters such as Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione in the early years of the sixteenth century. His role of court painter in Ferrara enabled him to establish personal contact with Italy’s most progressive painters, including Titian and Raphael. Battista is the lesser known of the two brothers, but was held in equal esteem in Ferrara during his lifetime. Battista used a similar technique and pictorial language to his older brother and the two painters often worked in tandem. Both were known to have painted portraits, though very few are unanimously accepted by scholars. The attribution of the portrait to one or both of the brothers has been made on the basis of the numerous stylistic and technical features of the work which appear to exist together only in their work. Scientific analysis has identified a coloured priming layer, an imprimitura, largely made up of clay. Research suggests this unusual type of imprimitura was particular to the two brothers. The oval shape of the portrait is another characteristic linking the painting to Dosso and Battista: they are the only Northern Italian painters of the period known to be working with oval-shaped panels. Oval paintings did not come into wider usage until the second half of the sixteenth century. Stylistically, the portrait contains important characteristics found in the Dossi brothers’ work: the uncomfortable perspective of the parapet was a persistent feature rarely found in the work of their peers. Finally, the use of the arbor directly behind the sitter was a favourite device, as was the special attention shown to the depiction of the flowers. Floral detail was something of a specialty in Dosso’s work, reflecting the interest that botanical symbolism and botany held in the court of Duke Alfonso d’Este.

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