Portrait of a Noblewoman ca. 1580

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Portrait of a Noblewoman illustrates Lavinia Fontana’s ability to render sumptuous clothing and jewels in astonishing detail. The contrast between the woman and the painting’s plain, dark background is especially strong, ensuring that viewers will focus on the figure.

Recent scholarship has established that this painting of an unidentified, young Bolognese noblewoman is almost certainly her marriage portrait. Studies of account books and family diaries from this period show that the clothes and gems depicted here correspond precisely to the items typical of a high-born bride’s trousseau. Additionally, 16th-century Bolognese brides wore red dresses, and the dog represents marital fidelity.

Suspended from the womans belt is a curious item mentioned in numerous family records of that time. It is the pelt of a marten—a slender, minklike creature—whose head and paws are elaborately decorated with jewels. This adornment serves as an additional symbol of the brides wealth.