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Portrait of Margherita Paleologo


RCIN 405777

This portrait by Giulio Romano depicts a fashionable noblewoman in a magnificent black dress. She is probably Isabella d’Este’s daughter-in-law, Margherita Paleologo (1510-1566), at the time of her marriage to Federico Gonzaga, 1st Duke of Mantua, in 1531.

The sitter wears a black overdress created from interlaced bands of black fabric (perhaps a heavy silk) edged with gold over a pale crimson undergown, and on her head an elaborate zazara (headdress). In the room behind her, a maidservant greets three visitors: two fashionable ladies and a nun. The painting was first recognised as the work of Giulio Romano in 1857-8, and the attribution has been generally accepted since then. A similar use of a mysteriously lit background space, in which the next episode in an ambiguous story is preparing to happen, can be seen in other works by the artist. Vasari complained that Giulio used black excessively, a pigment that can be detected in the background here. There is a Giulio study in pen and wash for the figure of the woman drawing back the curtain in the Louvre.

It has been proposed that the sitter was Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), daughter of Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, who married Francesco Gonzaga, Marchese of Mantua, in 1490. If this is the case, Giulio Romano presumably painted the portrait after his arrival at Mantua in 1524 and before Isabella’s departure for Rome in 1525. However, it has been suggested more recently that the portrait may depict Isabella’s daughter-in-law, Margherita Paleologo (1510-66), at the time of her marriage to Federico Gonzaga, 1st Duke of Mantua, in 1531.

There is evidence to connect the costume worn here with Isabella d’Este or her circle, which would support either identification. The peculiar design of the dress also decorates the sleeves of Titian's famous portrait of 'Isabella d'Este' (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and the headdress in Rubens's copy of c. 1530 (in the same museum) of another (lost) Titian portrait of Isabella. It has been linked to the ‘knot-fantasies’ (fantasie dei vinci), the pattern invented by the humanist Niccolò di Correggio in about 1493, probably specifically for Isabella and her sister Beatrice, wife of the Duke of Milan. From correspondence between the two sisters in 1493 we learn that Isabella had not yet adopted the fantasie dei vinci, but that Beatrice was planning a dress decorated with the device to wear to the Imperial wedding of her niece, Bianca Sforza, to Emperor Maximilian. The 'fantasie dei vinci' however has not been identified visually with any certainty. By the date of this portrait the fashion for interlaced bands had become more widespread in north Italian courts. The headdress (zazara) was also a fashion promoted by Isabella. The necklace resembles one in a Giulio Romano pen and ink drawing of c.1532-5 (Victoria and Albert Museum), made up of cut curving tubes and knotted looped cloths, though similar necklaces are worn in contemporary paintings by Bronzino and Titian. The sitter holds a rare and heavy lapis lazuli rosary with gold paternostri (the larger beads) and a devotional image (targa) which is partially visible at the lower edge of the painting. The Gonzagas’ passion for lapis was well known: several lapis rosaries are recorded in the 1540-42 inventory of Federico Gonzaga, and one appears in Titian’s portrait of him (Prado). We know that Federico sent a ‘corona di lapis’ to his young bride, Margherita Paleologo, who is described in a letter of 1531 wearing this and a zazara. In Margherita’s inventory there appears a lapis rosary with sixty-three Ave Marie beads interspersed with nine gold paternostri beads, and a targa of St Catherine. Since the folds of the dress cover some of the stones it is impossible to establish that this is the rosary in the painting.

Evidently the costume and accessories here could belong equally well to the Duke of Mantua’s mother (Isabella d’Este) in 1524 or to his wife (Margherita Paleologo) in 1531. The sitter here appears to be in her twenties and is certainly too young to be an accurate portrayal of Isabella in her fiftieth year (in 1524). By this time Isabella, who was particularly concerned with her image, refused to give sittings and required artists to base their likenesses of her on previous portraits. This portrait may have been attempting something similar. However, the features here are not close enough to images of Isabella at any age to make the identification more than a possibility.

The other candidate, Margherita Paleologo, was twenty-one when she married Federico in 1531. She was described (in 1530) as having white skin, a long face and a nose like her father’s. The only reliable likeness of her is a medal by Pastorino de' Pastorini dated 1561 (British Museum), which shows a comparable shape of face, although a slightly different-shaped nose. The door frames in the background are very like those that still exist in the Camerini del Sole and delle Cappe, prepared for Margherita and Federico on their marriage, and are very different from those of Isabella’s own rooms on the ground floor of the Castello. In 1530 Giulio and Isabella furnished the rooms and in the Camera delle Arme arranged portraits of Federico, leaving a space for ‘the large painting that Messer Giulio is to make’, which may have been this new portrait of the Duchess.

It has been suggested that the visitors could be Isabella herself, accompanied by Isabella of Capua, the younger woman; and Margherita Cantelma, Duchess of Sora (d. 1532), who moved to a convent in Mantua after the death of her husband and sons. The evidence is not conclusive, but taking into account the medal, the circumstances of the marriage of Margherita at the date of the portrait and the architectural features of the rooms prepared for her, it is Margherita who is most likely to be represented here.

Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007

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