Dr David Didier Roth (1798–1885);
By whom sold on 15 October 1863 for 4,100 French francs (as Leonardo da Vinci) to
Baron James de Rothschild (1792–1868);
By descent to his daughter Charlotte, Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild (1825–1899), Paris;
By descent to her grandson Baron Henri de Rothschild (1872–1947), Ferrières (as Ambrogio de Predis);
By inheritance to one of his three children;
Anonymous sale, Paris, Galerie Charpentier, 9 May 1952, lot 102, reproduced plate XXVI (as attributed to Ambrogio de Predis);
Acquired by the father of the present owner;
Thence by descent.
Meisterwerke der Malerei aus Privatsammlungen im Bodenseegebiet, exh. cat., Künstlerhaus, Palais Thurn und Taxis, Bregenz, 1 July – 30 September 1965, pp. 62–63, cat. no. 77b, reproduced as colour plate 1.
Evocative of ancient and Renaissance coins and medals, the strict profile format was favoured for Sforza court portraits and frequently adopted by Leonardo’s Lombard contemporaries. The most compelling analogy with this portrait is the important ducal commission for the ‘Pala Sforzesca’, ordered by Duke Ludovico around 1494 and probably completed towards the end of the following year (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; fig. 1). Its creator – the so-called Master of the Pala Sforzesca, who remains anonymous – incorporates elaborate votive portraits of the ducal family into a grand image of the Virgin and Child with Saints; prominently positioned at the lower right opposite Ludovico her husband is a profile portrait of the Duchess Beatrice (1475–1497), daughter of Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and Eleanor of Aragon. In the ‘Pala Sforzesca’ Beatrice wears a more ostentatious version of the dress style worn by the lady in the present work: the jewels are larger, the embellishments greater and the fabric more flamboyant but the same elements are common to both. The many similarities include the fluttering ribbons on the sitter’s sleeve; the shape of the bodice; and the large ruby brooch worn on the side of the head, here attached to a coif (cuffia).1 The hairstyle, worn with a lenza or cord (cordellina) and coif, half covering the head, consists of hair parted in the centre, falling over the ears and gathered at the back in a long laced plait, sometimes, as here, contained in a plait-case (trinzale). Not only does it closely resemble the style on display in the ‘Pala Sforzesca’, it is similar to that adopted for Beatrice d’Este’s marble portrait by Gian Cristoforo Romano of about 1490–91 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Introduced from Spain, via Naples, by Isabella d’Aragon, the style flourished in Milan in the 1490s and became fashionable throughout Lombardy in the final decade of the fifteenth century and into the early years of the sixteenth.2 It features in a number of late fourteenth-century north Italian paintings, the most celebrated example of which is probably Leonardo’s ‘La Belle Ferronière’, whose sitter wears a similar style.
In 1953 the Portrait of a lady was recognised by Roberto Longhi as a characteristic example of the portraiture of Bernardino de’ Conti (c. 1470–1523), a Milanese follower of Leonardo.3 Several profile portraits by Bernardino are known, of which the most closely related stylistically are those of Francesco Maria Sforza as a boy (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City) and Bianca Maria Sforza (Musée du Louvre, Paris; fig. 2).4 Longhi dates the Portrait of a lady to the last decade of the Quattrocento. Federico Zeri also attributes the portrait to Bernardino.5 At the Fototeca of the Biblioteca Berenson, the work is filed under Bernardino de’ Conti but other attributions annotated on the reverse of photos include Ambrogio de Predis, Maestro della Pala Sforzesca and Boltraffio, the latter on the back of a photo taken before 1952 when the work was still heavily overpainted.
The Portrait of a lady sold at auction on 9 May 1952 with an attribution to Ambrogio de Predis. Already at that date the inscription on the letter in the lady’s hand was partly effaced and is no longer legible today. The picture’s appearance then differed from how it looks now. With the removal of overpaint from the forehead, back and sleeve, many aspects of the lady’s hairstyle and costume were restored. It is unclear when exactly these alterations were made – either before the portrait entered the Rothschild collection in 1863, or later – nor is it known when the overpaint was removed but it was probably soon after the Paris sale. Recently the attribution to Ambrogio has been firmly rejected by Maria Teresa Fiorio, whom we thank for her opinion.6 In a letter of May 1955 written to the father of the present owner Antonio Morassi attributed the portrait to Ambrogio, comparing it to the portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza in the Louvre, which he believed to be similar in handling. Considered then to be by Ambrogio, today Bianca’s portrait is attributed by the museum to Bernardino, who remains a plausible candidate also as the author of this painting.
1 Comparison with this and other contemporary examples indicates that the sleeve of the lady’s dress would once have been more close-fitting. The reconstruction is the result of damage in this area.
2 A fascinating example of this style in a non-secular context is found in a Pietà of about 1495 by Giovanni Bonconsiglio, known as il Marescalco, in which Mary Magdalen wears the latest fashion (Museo Civico, Vicenza). We are grateful to Jane Bridgeman, dress and textile historian, for drawing this to our attention and for her comments on aspects this style of dress.
3 Written communication with the father of the present owner, 29 July 1953.
4 The former inv. 40446; the latter inv. RF 2086, 47.5 x 36.8cm.; both on panel.
5 Fondazione Zeri, Fototeca, no. 32946.
6 Written communication, 15 May 2018.
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