This small unpublished panel is a felicitous rediscovery, and provides a precious addition to the oeuvre of the refined Ferrarese artist Lorenzo Costa. Born in 1460 to an industrious family of painters, Costa soon established himself in the capital of the Este duchy, in the wake of Cosmé Tura (c. 1430-1495) and Francesco del Cossa (c. 1435-1477). He was always favoured by courtly patrons, and was in steady contact with the most lively Humanist cities: first in his native Ferrara, then in the Bologna of the Bentivoglio, and finally at the court of the Gonzaga in Mantua. In Bologna, where he moved to with his family in 1483, he obtained important commissions from the Bentivoglio family, and – together with Francesco Raibolini, called il Francia (c. 1450-1517/18) – he became a leading figure Po Valley and Bolognese painting at the turn of the century, confounding what Federico Zeri defined as “la parlata classicista”. The new pictorial language, perfected by Costa during the 1490s and following the path set by Francia, led him to gradually distance himself from the more bizarre and visionary elements of the Ferrarese masters and adopt purer forms and a greater directness and warmth that would better reflect the habits and ideals of the Emilian courtly oligarchy. With the expulsion of the Bentivoglio in 1506, Lorenzo found a home at one of the most vital European courts of the Renaissance, the Mantua of Isabella d’Este and Francesco II Gonzaga, where some of the great geniuses of the period were welcomed. As chance would have it, Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) died in that very year, leaving the position of court artist vacant; thus, preceded by the fame he had found with the Bentivoglio, Costa was able to take on this prestigious role, which he kept until his death in 1535.
The elegant lady portrayed here is dressed in the courtly fashion of the time, with special attention given to details underlining her nobility, from jewelry to the white chemise – symbolizing purity and elevated social rank – emerging over her sleeve and attached to her dress with a light, transparent bow. The valuable textiles are enhanced by the rich brushwork juxtaposing the saturated greens and blues with the sparkling vermilion of her mantle, and accentuating her pale skin. With a regal attitude, she holds a vegetal cornucopia in her right hand, with sprouting oak leaves, often used in allegories of Strength (understood as the virtue of Fortitude) or Liberality. The horn of plenty and the green of her dress might support the hypothesis that this is an allegory of Abundance.1 As for the cornucopia – a symbol of prosperity, but also of concord and providence – it is not represented with its customary aspect, replete with fruit and flowers, but instead seems to have a more predominantly decorative value, like the design of the lady's dress. Indeed its vegetal volutes recall the motifs one finds in numerous courtly ornaments of the period.2 Costa had placed a similarly sinuous and stylized green cornucopia in the hands of a full-length Venus,3 whose oval features and threaded jewels on head and neck closely resemble the corresponding elements in our panel, but which appears to belong to an earlier period. It is hard to establish whether this portrait is really that of a courtier. Bearing in mind Costa’s undoubted talent as a painter of portraits4 we may find it more plausible to believe that here he was emphasizing the allegorical element, depicting an ideal of ethereal, sublimated feminine beauty that resonated in the Humanistic ideals of the time. Evidence for such a notion comes from a series of small-scale panels with half-length female figures, all likewise subject to interpretation as symbolic, religious or mythological portraits, painted by Costa during his years in Mantua. Close parallels for our picture can be found in the Portrait of a Woman with a Halberd (Minerva?),5 datable to about the 1520s, similar in composition and dimensions, and with the same jewel pendant around the subject's neck. Stylistic similarities can also be found with the Portrait of a Lady in Manchester6 and the Portrait of a Lady with a Lapdog (Allegory of Faith?) in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court.7 What prevails in all these deliberately enigmatic images is the allegorical aspect, which would have reflected the Neo-Platonic aesthetic that was so dear to the Humanist courts of the era, and especially to Isabella d’Este Gonzaga. Stylistically, our panel suggests a date from Lorenzo Costa's maturity, not before the 1510s, and related to the works he painted in the refined cultural milieu of the Mantuan court, where the Bolognese and Northern European elements of his style were combined with the new influence of Leonardo da Vinci. Daniele Benati, for one, supports a dating of our little panel to the Mantuan period. Yet its adherence to a Leonardesque mood is not quite complete; it would be more evident in subsequent works, starting in the 1520s, as for example in the panel with Saint Anthony of Padua between Saints Ursula and Catherine now in the collection of the Cassa di Risparmio di Carpi,8 or in the later Virgin and Child Enthroned between Saints Sebastian, Sylvester, Paul, Augustine, Elizabeth, the Young John the Baptist and Roch,9 dated 1525.
1.In his Iconologia, Cesare Ripa associates the green colour of this dress, often embroidered with gold, with the “verdeggiar della campagna” ("verdant countryside"; Iconologia, I.2), and thus with fertility.
2.Compare, for example, the sculpted frieze with cornucopias and storks by Antonio Lombardo now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (MLRF 228), commissioned by Duke Alfonso I d’Este at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The cornucopias in the middle of the relief allude to the state of prosperity guaranteed by the politics of “peace through war” adopted by Duke Alfonso.
3.See E. Negro and N. Roio, Lorenzo Costa 1460-1535, Modena, 2001, pp. 124-125, no. 54.
4.Suffice it to consider the portraits of members of the Bentivoglio family in the canvas of the Virgin and Child Enthroned and the Family of Giovanni II Bentivoglio in San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna, or the Portrait of Giovan Battista Fiera in the National Gallery, London, or indeed the self-portrait, as recognized by scholars, in the Concert, also in the National Gallery.
5.Negro and Roio, as in note 3, pp. 131-132, no. 63.
6.Negro and Roio, pp.126-127, no. 5
7.Negro and Roio, pp. 125-126, no. 55.
8.Negro and Roio, pp. 132-133 , no. 66 and pl. XXX.
9.Negro and Roio, pp. 135-136, no. 71 and pl. XXXIII.
France, private collection