COSTA, Lorenzo the Elder
(b. ca. 1460, Ferrara, d. 1535, Mantova)

Portrait of a Lady with a Lap-dog

c. 1500
Oil on panel, 45,5 x 35,1 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The portrait can be dated on stylistic grounds to around 1500 on the basis of a comparison with the figures in the Ghedini altarpiece - the Virgin with Four Saints — of 1497 in the church of San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna. Such a dating also accords with the style of the costume which is notable for its detachable sleeves and elegant ties. The singing colours and transparent shadows denote Costa's Ferrarese origins and are characteristic of his early work. The high degree of finish, most apparent in the careful delineation of the strands of hair, the use of gold highlights on the dress, and the close observation of the numerous attachments (necklaces and headband), suggest that the portrait was not only an important commission, but also that the painter was susceptible to Flemish art, which he could have seen in the Este collection at Ferrara. It is a refined image of a type frequently found in north Italian courts at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At least two copies of the portrait are known. The pose has certain affinities with the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani - the mistress of Lodovico Sforza - by Leonardo da Vinci, which dates from the mid 1480s.

Some scholars attempted to identify the sitter with Isabella d'Este, but this is no longer accepted, primarily because Costa did not begin to work for this important patron until 1504. It is possible that the likeness is of a member of the Bentivoglio family, who held sway in Bologna until driven from the city by Julius II in 1506. Works by Costa were commissioned by members of the family and later, on the recommendation of Antongaleazzo Bentivoglio, the artist played a prominent part in the decoration of Isabella d'Esre's studiolo at the court of Mantua.

The left edge of the panel has been bevelled at the back and may therefore have originally been hinged. This suggests that the painting may have formed the right wing of a diptych, perhaps celebrating a marriage. The left side of the diptych is lost. In the context of a marriage the lap-dog would symbolise fidelity.