Lot 25
  • 25

North Italian School, circa 1530

80,000 - 120,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Portrait of a lady with a gypsy
  • oil on panel


Private collection, Belgium.

Catalogue Note

In this beguiling portrait of uncertain authorship and date, a lady, whose lips hint at a smile, is shown half-length against a green background, seated with her lap dog – an emblem of fidelity. From the gold chain around her neck hangs a pendant that she presses to her breast. Immediately behind her, as if approaching to whisper in her left ear, another woman makes her presence felt by touching her shoulder.

The sitter is wearing a black dress, its sleeves set low on the shoulder, over a shift with an embroidered border. On her head she wears a balzo, a type of headdress fashionable in the 1520s.1 There are comparable examples – albeit more elaborate – in portraits by Lorenzo Lotto, such as his Portrait of Lucina Brembati of about 1518, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo; the Portrait of a husband and wife of about 1524 at The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; and in the same museum Benvenuto Tisi's Marriage at Cana, signed and dated 1531, a late instance of this style. In the opinion of Jane Bridgeman, a dress and textile historian, the style of dress is datable to the second half of the 1520s, a good indication of when the portrait is likely to have been painted. 

Executed on poplar, the panel was extended early in its history with the addition of a narrow strip at the right-hand edge. It is likely that this was done to accommodate the second figure. Nicholas Penny has identified the latter as a gypsy, the chin-cloth being the defining feature of her garb. She may be a fortune teller. The depiction of gypsies was a phenomenon that flourished in the first decades of the seventeenth century, in a new kind of genre-painting stimulated by Caravaggio’s early Roman paintings of the 1590s. In sculpture too, the type gained celebrity, the most famous example being the Zingara, once at the Villa Borghese in Rome.2 This seems to be an early example of a gypsy in a sixteenth-century Italian painting; a date in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, or perhaps even slightly later, has been suggested. The most plausible conclusion is that the gypsy was added to a portrait of a lady and her lapdog after a considerable interval, probably by another hand, thereby turning a portrait into a work more akin to genre painting.3 The insertion of a gypsy into this intriguing portrait changes our reading of it and introduces ideas of fortune and destiny, illusion and deceit.

A traditional attribution to Boltraffio is recorded in an eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century inscription on the reverse of the panel.4 There is no consensus at present over the attribution. Bernardino Licinio (Venice, c. 1490– after 1549) has been suggested; others too have read the portrait’s idiom as Venetic. Uncertainty over its roots in either Lombardy or the Veneto, has prompted alternative suggestions. Marco Tanzi, on the basis of a photograph, is firmly of the opinion that the portrait was painted in Romagna between the end of the 1520s and the beginning of the 1530s. Regarding the second figure, it has been suggested that it looks perhaps to Passerotti and Bolognese examples. On recent first-hand inspection of the painting, Keith Christiansen has questioned a dating in the 1520s, proposing instead that the portrait may have been painted considerably later in the century. As a possible point of reference, he suggests Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), an artist from Bologna, whose portrait style reflects the formality of central Italian models as well as the naturalistic tendencies of the north Italian tradition. We are grateful to them all for their opinions.

1. This part of the painting may have been altered at a later date, perhaps when the second figure was added to the composition, since its current form is somewhat anomalous.

2. The Zingara is a hybrid statue of a gypsy, comprising a classical Greek marble for the draped body and later additions in bronze for the head, arms and feet, reconstructed sometime between 1556 (the date when Aldrovandi mentioned it as being in Domenico Capotio’s collection: ‘a statue without a head’) and 1638 (when it is recorded in the Villa Borghese as an ‘Egyptian Woman’); it is now in the collection of the Musée du Louvre, on deposit at Versailles; see F. Haskell and N. Penny, Taste and the Antique, The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500–1900, New Haven and London 1981, pp. 339–41, no. 95. The transformation by Nicholas Cordier (1567–1612) of another ancient sculpture into a gypsy for Cardinal Scipione Borghese – the Zingarella – is also discussed.

3. The line of her shoulder is visible through the painted finger tips.

4. Boltrafio / Sco[laro]: di Lionardo da Vinci.