Pisanello: Young Lady of the Este Family
This likeness of a young lady belongs to the early period of modern portraiture. It was executed in the decade during which Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin painted their most important portraits. However, it differs from these in its use of the profile view, a pose reminiscent of antique art and frequently chosen by Pisanello (1395-1455) for his medals and plaquettes. It is to the influence of com and medal portraiture, too, that we may attribute the lack of modelling in many of his subject’s faces, their affinity, in other words, to relief sculpture. There has been considerable controversy over the identity of the sitter portrayed by Pisanello on this small panel. Of the many suggestions made, two may be mentioned here. The fragile, childlike face, with its high, shaved forehead and hair tightly combed back and held in place by an unevenly bound, transparent calotte-style bonnet, is most frequently thought to belong to Margarita de Gonzaga. She was Lionello d’Este’s wife, and was married to him in 1433 — the year in which the portrait is generally thought to have been painted. A second hypothesis identifies the sitter as Ginevra d’Este, who was married to Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta of Rimini, with whom she later fell into disgrace. He is thought to have poisoned her in 1440, when she was twenty-two years old. Whoever she was, there can be little doubt that her likeness belongs to the genre of courtly portraits. The young woman, possibly a princess, may have sat during the course of marriage negotiations, or on the occasion of her approaching, or perhaps even recently performed, wedding ceremony. This hypothesis is supported by the the sitter’s decorative, tapestry-style background. The radiant blossoms — columbines and carnations- upon which butterflies have settled, and which have sprung from the dark green leaves of a bush, were Mariological attributes usually representing chastity. However, it is equally possible that this was a posthumously executed portrait of the kind Piero della Francesca may have painted of Battista Sforza, since butterflies often symbolised resurrection in portraits of sitters who had died young. The ornamental symbol of the juniper sprig (Juniperus vulgaris), embroidered on the sitter’s ribbed, short-waisted overgarment, seems to reinforce this. Folklore attributed obscure magical powers to the shrub. It was said to protect people against demons, and, in a more practical sense, to help against contagious diseases. Juniper was also recommended as a means of guarding against early death.