The subject of this portrait by Venetian painter Giorgione has been a source of intriguing speculation for centuries. Who is this dark-haired, young woman? Why is she depicted bare-breasted draped in a red fur-lined cloak before a branch of laurel?
The only facts known are inscribed on the back of the painting. It states that Giorgione finished it on June 1, 1506 for a “messer Giacomo,” about whom nothing further is known. Beyond that, there are only theories, many revolving around the laurel branch in the background.
Most theorists agree it must be a metaphor but of what is the question. Laurel, symbolising fidelity and chastity, was often found in Venetian double portraits of courting or married couples. Could this be the bride of "Mr. Giacomo”? Could he have been pictured in a lost companion picture? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely considering a respectable Venetian family would never picture the bride bare-breasted.
Laurel is also the crown of poets. Could she be an allegory of poetry? As early as the 17th century, some have gone even further to suggest she is Laura, the beloved of the poet Petrarch, the laurel being both an emblem of her chastity and of his poetic genius. Yet again, the question is why present her semi-dressed?
We also know that this portrait marks a new phase in individual female portraiture in Venice, which up to this time was primarily a display of the sitter’s modesty and social position. This image, however, is about sensuality.
The woman’s hand on her cloak, whether pulling it on or taking it off, is a gesture of seduction aimed at a male viewer. Giorgione uses his characteristic muted palette and flowing transitions between colours to heighten the sensual effect of soft fur against fair skin and a gauzy veil around a rosy nipple. It has been suggested that she wears a man’s cloak, a further suggestion of a boudoir scene. Her expression is elusive, and the viewer can only guess at whom she directs her steady gaze, adding a titillating element of voyeurism to the image.
This painting would become a prototype for later portraits of courtesans in Venetian art such as those by Titian, Palma Vecchio and Paris Bordone. These images would have hung in private rooms to be admired for their beauty and sex appeal. At the time Giorgione painted it there were around 10,000 courtesans living in Venice, about 10% of the population. A successful courtesan was socially higher than a common prostitute; she was often educated, literary or musical and could participate in public life, which highborn ladies could not. If this is in fact a courtesan, Giorgione’s portrait may reflect her demimonde status – not quite respectable but nevertheless part of Venetian society.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1506 Michelangelo, Doni Tondo (The Holy Family with the infant St John the Baptist), Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
1506 Albrecht Dürer, Altarpiece of the Rose Garlands, Prague, Národní Gallerie