(b. ca. 1499, Roma, d. 1546, Mantova)

Portrait of a Woman

c. 1531
Oil on panel, 115,5 x 90,5 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The woman is traditionally identified as Isabella d'Este.

The artist was a leading assistant of Raphael in Rome before being appointed court artist to the Gonzagas at Mantua in 1524. Apart from his skills as a painter, architect and designer, he has the distinction of being the only Italian artist referred to by name by Shakespeare (in The Winter's Tale).

The painting was first recognised as a work by Giulio Romano and identified as a portrait of Isabella d'Este in the eighteenth century. Although both the attribution and the identification have been challenged, there is a general consensus that the portrait is by Giulio Romano. The treatment of the architecture in particular is comparable with the backgrounds of the Madonna della Gatta (Naples, Capodimonte) and the Virgin and Child (Rome, Galleria Nazionale). In general terms, the composition reveals a debt to the Portrait of Giovanna d'Aragona (Paris, Louvre), which was probably designed by Raphael, but painted with the assistance of Giulio Romano.

The identification of the sitter has recently become the subject of discussion. Isabella d'Este (1474-1539), one of the foremost patrons of the arts in Renaissance Italy, married Giovanni Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, in 1490. She was notoriously reluctant to be painted and her personal iconography is severely limited. The principal images are two portraits by Titian: Isabella d'Este in Black (about 1534-36) and Isabella d'Este in Red (both in Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). In these works, as well as in the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci dating from 1500 (Paris, Louvre) and a medal by Giancristoforo Romano of 1498, the face is round, the forehead low and the neck short. These are features that do not accord with the sitter in the present portrait. The age of the sitter also seems incompatible as Isabella d'Este would have been fifty when Giulio Romano arrived in Mantua. Furthermore, the knot patterns on the dress, often associated with the personal motif created for Isabella d'Este by Niccolò da Correggio in 1493, were a widespread fashion.

An alternative identification of the sitter with Margherita Paleologo (1510-66), who married Isabella d'Este's son, Federico Gonzaga, the first Duke of Mantua, in 1531, has been proposed. Contemporary descriptions suggest a closer likeness ('the skin white like snow, the face a little long with a nose like her father's) and there is an abundance of evidence for Margherita Paleologo's interest in clothes and ornaments. It has been suggested that the portrait was made at the time of her wedding, and that the veiled figure entering the room in the background is Isabella d'Este. The Marchesa is attended possibly by her other daughter-in-law, Isabella of Capua, and a nun, Margherita Cantelma, Duchess of Sora (died 1532). Although the documentary evidence is persuasive, final visual confirmation is lacking.

There are signs of a figure (perhaps a putto) in the upper left corner, which may indicate that the artist had used the panel on a previous occasion for a different composition. The elegant figure of the maid pulling back the curtain may have been inspired by the sculptural figures on early funerary monuments, for example, on the tomb of Cardinal de Braye (died 1282) by Arnolfo di Cambio (Orvieto, San Domenico).