Donnas con due specchi

The original “wrapping” of the painting (i.e., its frame) is even bigger (and even more decorative), but I’ve cut it a bit, as if in revenge for the fact that it also ‘cut’ (hidden) some part of canvas; the actual surface is bit bigger than is revealed by the frame.

For example, when this painting was on display in Italy last year, a  small mirror hold by the man was completely visible:

(the site of the exhibition, by the way, still offers the best quality image of the work of Titian available online, which one can zoom and explore the very craquelures of this famous painting).

In a sense, the name of the painting has been also ‘truncated’ over time – it is known now as Donna con uno specchio (literally Woman with a mirror, sometimes translated as Woman before a mirror, or Woman in front of a mirror). But all these names conceal the most important fact of this work – that mirror-wise we see here not one, but two of them, and so the actual name should be as in the subject of this posting.

The exhibition mentioned above could be a good starting point for any story about this work. The painting is now in the Louvre, from some time immemorial, but similar to some other famous Italian masterpieces (Mona Lisa would be one of them), it was decided to show it in ‘homeland’, so to speak. Not quite accurately ‘home’, if to be precise – the painting was made in Venice, but they decided to show it in Milan; but at least in one country.

There, in this country, the painting has caused a real art-hysteria. During one month in Palazzo Marino it was seen by unprecedented half a million people (free tickets from Eni did help, of course). Only the laziest art critic in Italy didn’t write a lengthy piece about this work, its beauty and elegance, its tenderness and femininity, and its reflection of the ‘Italian soul’.

I’ve recently found a film (though it was in Italian, so I just looked through rather than properly watched) where this painting was praised in various ways for nearly an hour by about thirty different famous Italian women, from the art, fashion, design, beauty, and other industries. They obviously found tons of true femininity there.

Interestingly, but the mirror issues was rarely mentioned, and if it was, it was mostly about the large mirror in the background. Because of its convex form it shows not only the girl’s neck from the back, but also a significant chunk of the room and even part of the window; all that, according to the critics, creates an amazing 3D (?) effect.

I am generally not about diminishing the feminine beauty, and there is a lot of it here, for sure. But my focus is on something different, namely, the mirrors, and on them we see surprisingly little in all these lengthy stories.

And that’s especially regretful, because this work has a number of unique features related to the mirrors that are staying hidden behind all these big words about High Femininity. My purpose is to reveal, or resurface a few of those unreflected things.

This painting would make it to the Mirror Hall of Fame even for one of those ‘things’, for the fact that it is the first depicted Social Mirror Cocoon. I wrote at length about this phenomena, mirror cocoon, when describing Bellini’s famous painting, but there it was performed solo, so to speak; the woman was alone in the scene.  We also saw already some social scenes with the mirrors (for example, in Bosch’s works), but there we didn’t see this very special personal, intimate interactions. Baldung was showing the ‘mirror cocoon’ in the presence of other people – but they were not involved in the games with the mirror).

Here Titian show a very complex social action mediated by a mirror (even -s):

But this is more things happening here – this painting also shows another pivotal moment, the (r)evolution of mirror technology. We see how the ‘old style’, convex mirror are complemented here by the new, flat one (the latter would gradually replace the former over time). In the painting by Bellini I could only wonder whether the depicted mirrors represents these two generation, here the pair is shown quite clearly. And may be the main meaning of this painting was to show this very transit?

If I would alter the last sentence from half-questioning into affirmative, then the story of the ‘mirror aspects’ of this work can be considered done (an attentive reader of these postings know that I usually put these ‘mirror icons’ at the end of the postings. And it really is: finita, dixi.

There are, of course, many optional parts details and nuances; small letters. I put some of them below; you are welcome to proceed further, in case of your interest.


A few words about the author, at least, about the pieces of his biography that are somehow related to this work. When we here the word ‘Titian’ we usually construct an image of a gray-haired master, an art wizard of the same calibre (and age) as Leonardo or Rembrandt (see the picture on the left, his self-portrait of 1557).

In fact, these Due specchi  had been created by a relatively young man, resembling more the picture on the right. There have been are discussions about how is exactly portrayed here – earlier versions suggested Ludovico Ariosto, but more recent opinions lean toward a self-portrait, made about 1512 (worth to keep in mind that both in this case, and in the cases of many other works, all these dates are very approximate).

In the case of Titian, for example, we don’t even know his exact date of birth – according to his own memoirs, which he wrote at the end of life, he was born in 1476 (in that case, the painting with the woman, the man, and their two mirrors would be created by a forty years old master (it’s dated 1515).

On the other hand, such an early date of birth contradicts to all the other facts of his biography – for example, it is known that he worked as an apprentice in the workshop of Bellini in Venice while still being a very young man, and Bellini died in 1516. Modern scholars estimate the Titian’s date of birth around 1488-1490, and so the woman with her mirrors would be painted by a 25-year-old aspiring artist.

Of course, in no way I want to diminish Titian – even being quite young, he had been already a recognized artist, “the first among equals” in a circle of such masters as Filippo Lippi, Sebastiano del Piombo or Caravaggio.

But still, certain inaccuracies of the drawing in this painting raise some questions. For example, the man depicted on this painting – of course, we see all required male attributes, but he is still too fragile, and his shoulders are too small to be of man; he looks more like a boy. Or his arms, especially the left one; it is clear that the lush folds of his dress can hide a lot of things, but if you start to look closely, there is something not quite right with the lines and angles of his arm; the arms usually don’t grow that way.

Here should be a quick tangent, to tell how paintings (and especially frescos) had been painted at that time. By the way, Titian, like most artists of his time, created many frescos and murals too, in fact, in his youth he was mostly painting frescos. Unfortunately, almost nothing of his early works survived, but we know that the reviews were great, and it is for the high quality of his work with frescos he got a spot in the workshop of Bellini, and later his own patent and even a place at the court of the Doge.

To create a fresco, its full-size paper version was produced first, which was then copied onto a wall. This paper copy was not necessarily made in one piece, more often it was a collection of separate sheets, a set of building blocks with different semi-finished pieces (bodies, faces, arms, feet, etc), out of which the final assemblage was compiled.

Typically, the master was creating an overall composition of the fresco, and then the majority of its “building blocks” (=sheets, which were becoming the key assets, the capital of his studio with time). Later him and the pupils of his studio were creating the actual frescos, often recycling the earlier sheets as well. The same technique has been used in the production of paintings too, whereby the canvases were filled with already existing “building blocks.”

Once successfully painted, such a block was then re-used in different later works. For example, the very Woman from the Woman with a mirror was later used by Titian in the Flora (although again, the ‘later’ here should be treated with caution – the portrait is attributed between 1515 and 1520, so it’s not quite clear which work was made first):

But the issue here is not only in the similarity of the ‘head’, ‘shoulders’ and, well, ‘breasts’ in these works. The x-ray analysis of this picture shows that it was not painted as a ‘figure’ first, to be ‘dressed’ later, but as a collection disjointed pieces. The final assembly didn’t always work well, they didn’t have the luxury of the accurate alignment tools of the modern graphical editors. 

All these interesting details had been told as an introduction to the following: we know that there was, in fact, a number of the versions of the famous Women with a mirror. I found at least four, but we don’t even know exactly how many was made in total (and to what extent they are fully by Titian, and what parts had been made by his assistants).

Here’s the work that is considered the earliest (1512):

And here we indeed see the boy! This young moor could well be a servant of a wealthy lady in Venice, and he could help her with the toilette. I only have this very poor copy and can’t see what happens there in the mirror – but on the table we see not only a special vessel for oil for the hair, but also the comb. Thus, according to all the symbols, this could be the Vanity.

Here is the work dated “1516 or later” (it is now in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona; the first one, by the way, is in Prague, in the Prague Castle – and oh, what a horrible website they have! and what a client for802_11, with her beautiful interface!):

Here the “Boy” not only gained an age (it’s a bearded man here), but also lost all his Moorish features, still visible in the work of 1515; he is perfectly pale-faced.

And here’s another work of the same series:

It is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and it is believed to be ‘the least Titianian’ of all four; it is more often described as the “workshop of Titian,” and vaguely dated around 1520.

Here our ‘boy’ not only lost anything Moorish but also acquired all the signs of a wealthy nobleman. According to one version, it is a portrait of Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, a small kingdom neighboring Venice. It was him who ordered Bellini the famous ‘Bacchanalian series’ for his palace (which Bellini’s Woman with the Mirrors was allegedly part of, and which was finished by young Titian after the death of the old master.)

If this is Alfonso, then the woman (who lost most of her clothes) could well be Laura Dianti, the famous courtesan of the Duke for many years, and eventually his third wife (she became such after the death of his second wife, Lucrezia Borgia, in 1519). May be the ring that is laying there is a hint to their wedding?

We can raise the question, therefore – what is the earlier portrait of Women with the Mirrors, of 1515, is also a double portrait of Alfonso and Laura? And may be even on the earliest portrait, with the Moorish boy, we already see Laura as well? Perhaps, the portrait impressed Alfonso so much that he ordered to make another one, replacing the boy with himself? All these conjecture are, of course, idle, and are to be processed by the ones who have idle time (=not me; no chance to dig through all this historical mess).

Given the approximate nature of all these dates, you can build multiple versions of alternative histories, so to speak – what painting was made first, and what happened then, and how, and why:

Of those ‘interesting details’ on the last picture I would like to point out that the rear, convex mirror is missing here; perhaps a reflection that they started to go out of fashion? But a small mirror now turned to us, and we clearly see that it is indeed the mirror of “new generation”, a flat one. It’s also placed in a small box with a sliding cover (the earliest mirrors were usually protected from strong, direct light, otherwise they were loosing their reflective quality). A tiny flat mirror, a novel expensive gadget and a good wedding gift, perhaps.


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