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Palma Vecchio (active 1480-1528)

A Sibyl c. 1522-4

RCIN 405763

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Inspired by Titian’s 'Flora' (Uffizi, Florence), the seductive but idealised female half-length was one of Palma’s specialities. This woman’s appearance may have been inspired by the look of Venetian courtesans at the time, and also reflects descriptions of erotic beauty in literature. This painting is one of two autograph versions of this design; the other, now in the Fondazione Sorlini, Venice, also has a distinguished provenance, having been in the collections of Queen Christina of Sweden (in 1632), Philippe, Duc d’Orléans (in 1722) and the Duke of Bridgewater. The Sorlini version has the same dimensions, but is more highly finished and thickly painted; the woman’s face is broader, she has fuller locks with flowers in her hair, she shows more of the cuff of her chemise around her left hand, and her nipple is more pronounced. The execution is more summary: the cuffs are simple strokes of white, without the gatherings of the Royal Collection version; her right hand is hastily indicated, with none of the subtle modelling found here; and the range of dark to light and use of colour is more restricted. The artist laid a grey layer on a creamy white gesso ground and used this as a base colour or imprimatura for the flesh. This technique must have been typical for Palma: the unfinished portrait known as ‘Paola Priuli’ in the Pinacoteca Querini-Stampalia, Venice, has a grey ground to which pink has been added to start modelling the face; the unfinished right hand of the so-called ‘Francesco Querini’, also in the Querini-Stampalia, has similar areas of grey. In both versions of the 'Sibyl' the area of the chemise in shadow is suggested by leaving the grey underlayer untouched. The areas of flesh in the Royal Collection painting have an ‘unfinished’ look compared with the Sorlini version, which cannot be the result of a lost glaze (although some surface details elsewhere, in the eyes and around her mouth, have been lost). X-radiography reveals slight changes to the composition, especially in the position and folds of the mantle around the sitter’s right hand. Carlo Ridolfi recorded in 1648 that ‘Palma executed many portraits of women with antique-style [alla’ antica] dress and ornaments’. The 'Sibyl' belongs to a group of paintings from the 1520s. The title is a nineteenth-century suggestion, based on the idea that the ‘arabic’ inscription (in fact a meaningless combination of letters) alludes to cryptic sibylline mysteries. The painting has been compared to Palma Vecchio’s 'A Blonde Woman' of 1522-4 (National Gallery, London), featuring a similarly revealing chemise, loose blond hair and gesture of the hand. The type ultimately derives from Titian’s 'Flora' of c.1515-20, which was in turn inspired by Leonardo and Giorgione. But who are these Sibyls, Floras and nymphs in Titian’s and Palma’s work? They could be portraits of specific courtesans, or images of erotic beauty derived from classical and medieval literature and associated with courtesans. Palma’s 'Sibyl' has dyed blonde hair with darker roots showing, perhaps recording the common practice at the time for courtesans to apply a liquid paste and bleach their hair in the sunlight. Courtesans throughout history have been given the names of pagan goddesses: Flora was a popular choice, but there was also one called ‘La Cumea’ (‘the Cumaean Sybil’) recorded in Venice at this time. But the ‘Bella Donna’ in the current work seems too generalised to be a portrait: all Palma’s women have similarly golden hair, full red mouth and fresh face. Here he has transformed the look of courtesans so much in favour at this time into an ideal erotic portrait of beauty to please the Venetian market for sensual images. The same features of ideal female beauty which were described in the poetry of Pietro Bembo and Pietro Aretino are visualised in Palma’s portraits. Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007