This enigmatic portrait of a young woman has been unequivocably attributed to the Lucchese painter Pietro Paolini. The artist was born in Lucca in 1603 but was sent by his father to Rome, to train in Angelo Caroselli's workshop, at the age of sixteen. When Paolini returned to Lucca in 1631 he established an art academy there attended by, amongst others, the still-life painter Simone del Tintore with whom Paolini is thought to have collaborated. It was during his years in Rome that Paolini absorbed the influence of Caravaggio and his followers, and indeed the caravaggesque realism of the present portrait would indicate that it post-dates his Roman sojourn. The painting was probably executed in the early 1630s, shortly after the artist's return to Lucca.
The young woman holds a compass in her right hand and appears to be drawing geometric designs for an arch on a piece of paper she holds in her left. The portrait is highly unusual in showing a woman engaged in architectural design; something that led Giusti Maccari to suggest that she may be an allegorical portrait intended to represent Architecture.1 The figure's physiognomy is highly naturalistic, however, and rather too specific for an 'allegorical' or 'idealised' portrait. Her quizzical expression seems to have been observed from a real model and her costume appears to be that of a contemporary: her velvet bodice is adorned with a red ribbon on each shoulder, to which a string of beads is fastened. This particular blend of the real and the ideal is characteristic of Paolini's male portraiture as well: his Man holding a mask, despite its emblematic overtones, shows a youth whose features are characterised like those of a real person and the same could be said for his Young man holding a butterfly in San Francisco.2 The latter painting is described by Giusti Maccari in words that could equally apply to the present portrait: 'The painting is another example of how in his portraiture Paolini manages to blend with great ability both realistic and idealised elements, obtaining surprising results. His portraits are both true to life and idealised at the same time, mysterious and fascinating in their abstraction, and all are datable between the third and fourth decades of the [17th] century'.3
1. See Giusti Maccari, under Literature. As she points out, the painting's dimensions appear to coincide with those of an Allegoria di una Scienza formerly in the Giunigi family, though a certain identification is almost impossible to prove.
2. The Man holding a mask was formerly in the collection of Viscount Harberton until sold, London, Christie's, 13 December 1990, lot 16. The Young man holding a butterfly is in the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco: see Giusti Maccari, op. cit., pp. 96-97, cat. no. 16, reproduced.
3. 'Il quadro è un ulteriore esempio di come nei ritratti il Paolini mescoli con grande abilità elementi realistici ad elementi ideali, ottenendo risultati sorprendenti. Sono ritratti veri e idealizzati allo stesso tempo, misteriosi e coinvolgenti nella loro astrazione, tutti collocabili fra il terzo ed il quarto decennio del secolo': ibid., p. 96, under cat. no. 16.
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