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Portrait of a Woman

Boltraffio Giovanni Antonio

(Milan 1467 - 1516)

First documented as forming part of the Borghese Collection in 1833, this panel has been attributed to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio of Milan, who together with Marco d'Oggiono and Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as Salaì, was active in Leonardo da Vinci’s Milanese workshop. The subject of the painting is a woman in three-quarter pose portrayed against a dark background; she wears an exquisite pearl necklace, which is probably meant to refer to her chastity.

Restoration of the work in the 20th century revealed the presence of an otter at the lower end of the painting, barely visible. This motif suggests that the panel derived from Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine.


Object details

Inventory
151
Location
Date
early 16th century
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on panel
Dimensions
cm 31 x 22
Frame

Salvator Rosa, 46.5 x 39 cm

Provenance

Rome, Borghese Collection, 1833 (Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 39; Della Pergola 1955); purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 1983-84 - Roma, Palazzo Barberini;
  • 2019 - Roma, Villa Farnesina.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1903-05 - Luigi Bartolucci (pest control);
  • 1946-53 - Carlo Matteucci, Alvaro Esposti;
  • 1954 - Gilda Diotallevi;
  • 2019 - Paola Minoja.

Commentary

The provenance of this work is still unknown. The panel is first identifiable in the documents of the Borghese Collection in 1833, when the Inventario Fidecommissario listed it as ‘a portrait of a woman in the style of Leonardo’.

The first scholar to venture an attribution was Adolfo Venturi (1893), who although uncertain suggested the name of Ambrogio de Predis. His idea was rejected shortly after by Frizzoni (1897; see Taglialagamba 2019), who leaned toward the Milanese painter Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. This hypothesis was in turn accepted by Caroti (1899; see Taglialagamba 2019) and without reservations by Suida (1929), but not by Bernard Berenson (1932) or Roberto Longhi (1928), who both limited themselves to proposing a master from Lombardy.

Following in Frizzoni’s wake, Paola della Pergola (1955) revived the attribution to Boltraffio, which all subsequent critics, including recent ones, have accepted (Vezzosi 1983-84; Chirico de Biasi 1987; Fiorio 1998; Ead. 2000; Kristina Hermann Fiore 2006; Sara Taglialagamba 2019).

Della Pergola (1955) rightly likened this portrait of a mysterious woman to Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine, which indeed served as the model not only for the dark background and the slight three-quarter pose but also for the motif of depicting the subject holding an animal, a detail which re-emerged when Carlo Matteucci began restoring the painting in 1946. In addition, the work in question similarly portrays the subject wearing a precious necklace, which together with the ermine is most likely intended to emphasise the woman’s virtues.

As Maria Teresa Fiorio (1998; 2000) suggested, the painting probably dates to the 1490s, a hypothesis supported by the noblewoman’s coiffure, which was in vogue in Italy and Spain in the last quarter of the 15th century. The coazia, or Catalan-style braid, was in fact a type of hairstyle worn by other prominent noblewomen of the era, such as Isabella of Aragon, Beatrice d’Este and Cecilia Gallerani herself, whom Leonardo immortalised in the famous portrait of Kraków.

Antonio Iommelli




Bibliography
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 76;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 105;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 193;
  • W. Suida, Luinis Bild der hl. Agathe, in “Belvedere”, VIII, 1929, p. 213;
  • B. Berenson, Italian pictures of the Renaissance. A list of the principal artists and their works with an index of places, Oxford 1932, p. 79;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 76, n. 134;
  • A. Vezzosi, in Leonardo e il leonardismo a Napoli e a Roma, Firenze 1983, pp. 206, 208 fig. 452;
  • M. Chirico de Biasi, Boltraffio, Giovan Antonio, in La pittura in Italia. Il Quattrocento, a cura di F. Zeri, Milano 1987, p. 587;
  • C. Del Bravo, Intese sull'arte, Milano 1998, p. 93;
  • M. T. Fiorio, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, in I leonardeschi. L'eredità di Leonardo in Lombardia, Milano 1998, p. 148;
  • M. T. Fiorio, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio: un pittore milanese nel lume di Leonardo, Milano 2000, pp. 99-100:
  • C. Stefani, in Galleria Borghese, a cura di P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Milano 2000, p. 271;
  • D. Isella, Lombardia stravagante: testi e studi dal Quattrocento al Seicento tra lettere e arti, Milano 2005, p. 24;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 54;
  • S. Taglialagamba, in Leonardo a Roma. Influenze ed eredità, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Villa Farnesina, 2019-2020), a cura di R. Antonelli, C. Cieri Via, A. Forcellino, M. Forcellino, Roma 2019, pp. 373-376.