Romano’s Romantic Mirrors

My previous exercise with mirrorless Rafael was partly written to introduce the works by Giulio Romano (also known under the name of Giulio Pippi, 1499-1546 – see also my small infoviz to better understand the context).

Romano is usually described as a “pupil of Raphael the Master”; I don’t think it gives hime the true merit, he had his own distinctive style, and a particular (or should I say – peculiar) angle content-wise. But I’m not here to re-write art history, at least, not yet.

Until recently, I believed that there is only one work by Romano, his famous La Fornarina, that was once considered to be painted by Raphael. But I am planning to write about this work later, and today start with a (rather rhetorical) question – what do you think, is holding in her hand the woman on the background who enters the room?

The following is a bigger version:

Ok, let’s start from the whole picture:

This portrait of a woman in a stunningly intricate dress (beautiful? terrifying? depends on your perception, of course) dates back to the year 1531. Romano painted it already in Mantua, where he had fled after the fall of Rome, and where he became the court painter of Francesco II Gonzaga.

So for a long time it was believed that this is the portrait of the Francesco’s wife, Isabella d’Este; the word ‘famous’ here will be an understatement, she was quite a legendary person, so called the First Lady of the Renaissance, the patroness of the arts and sciences, the skilled diplomat, sophisticated politician and simply a wise woman.

However, it is also known that she was not fond of sitting for artist, so we have only two of her known lifetime portraits as a result. The first artist who persuaded her to pose was Leonardo himself, but even with him the things did not go beyond the first sketch:

This is the work of the year 1500, Isabella is 26 years old here.

The next portrait of her (two, even) belong to Titian, and they had been made years later, about 1534 (36?). Isabella was already 60+ by then, and of course couldn’t look like that (this is the version called Black Isabella):

Titian painted the first portrait in a more more realistic manner, but Isabella was very  unhappy with this work, and ordered another portrait, this time in form of a young beauty. I can not find the original on the web, but it is believed that this painting by Rubens is a fairly accurate copy:

These are all very interesting details from the life of Marquis d’Este, but as seems now, they have little relation to portrait by Romano; art researchers now tend to attribute the woman in the portrait not as Isabella, but as Margaret Paleologa, first the bride, and then the wife of her son, Federico II Gonzaga. They married in 1531, and the portrait could therefore be their wedding gift.

The gosspis sources say that we could see the face of Cupid on the portrait, when it’s analyzed with the x-rays:

The other sources, however, tell us that it’s not about any special symbolism, but more about the usual practice of those day, when the canvas from one work was often recycled to paint another. Much more interesting is not to guess about the hidden contours, but to wonder about the true meanings of what is happening in this scene.

Who are the women that are entering the the door in the background? According to some versions, the woman in front could be Isabella herself, accompanied by his other daughter, Isabella of Capua, and Margherita Cantelma, the Duchess of Sora, dresed as a nun.

This is only a version, but it’s also supported by the fact that the door apparently resembles the interiors of the palace Camerini del Sole, where the young couple lived (and different from the interior of the palace of Isabella).

If this is true, Isabella could well carry in her hands a mirror, which was often used as a symbol of engagement (hello, Arnolfini!), and also hinted (or rather wished) a “fertile marriage” and numerous heirs (an alternative, and pretty dull (for me) a version is that  she simply holds a fan).

Where do these sexual motifs come from? Well, as far as we can tell, mirrors were given to the young couples with these purposes from the times immemorial in the area. This is also why their covers were usually decorated with rather explicit scenes:

Or – when the mirrors were still made of bronze – they put similarly explicit drawings on the unpolished sides of the mirrors:

And Giulio Romano happened to be very well aware of all these old folk traditions! Back in Rome he was painting Madonnas (though very sensual) and the holy families:

But his patrons required him to develop and master new threads and themes – for example, Romano was in charge of design, and then in interior development of the halls of the famous Palazzo del Te, the country residence of the Marquis in in Mantua, famous by its very frivolous mythological scenes. In this case, it is a feast of Cupid and Psyche:

and the following fresco depict epic (or epically lustful) Jupiter and Olympia:

On the other hand, it is not clear now, where is the cause and effect: whether the young talent came to court of Gonzaga to learn more sensual art, or the First Lady of the Renaissance summoned him to Mantua because of his reputation. Romano was known, among other things, as the author of one of the first (and by far the most explicit ) pornographic publications, the famous series of etchings called I Modi, or the Love postures (I don’t copy them here, but you can easily find a few examples of these work on the web).

Or take the design of the salt cellars by Giulio Romano – here we see a beautiful game of symbolisms, where the shells and coral represent the watery elements (and at the same time Venus / Aphrodite), while salt is as a symbol of the Earth; their connection  is a symbol of fertility and abundance. The mirror would fit very well to the design.

And yes, some people refused to believe it’s a mirror, and think that the Marquise holds a fan. I can argue, but can show a couple of painting from that time:

The picture is a fragment of the work by an unknown master of that time (some attribute this work to Cornelis van Haarlem).


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