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Venice 2014

Portraits in the Fifteenth Century

Portrait of Battista Sforza

Portrait of Battista Sforza

Piero della Francesca, after 1472,

Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence,

tempera on wood, 47x33 cm 

In order to understand Titian’s revolutionary portraiture, it is necessary to look at his predecessors. One of the most famous portraits from the fifteenth century is the Portrait of Battista Sforza done sometime after 1472 by Piero della Francesca. The portrait shows the sitter in a standard profile pose. Battista is blonde and pale, with an excessively high forehead, in keeping with the fashion of the time. She wears a sumptuous gown and jewels that symbolize the Virgin Mary. Her hair is gathered in a rich headdress that includes a veil and a jeweled headband. These riches show the power and majesty of the dukes of Urbino, but also evoke memories of Battista’s dowry and commemorate both her natal family as well as her husband’s family. She is portrayed as an ideal patrician lady in a society where beauty is conflated with virtue rather than lust. [4]

All these formal elements come together to create an image of a strong female ruler who nonetheless embodies the feminine ideal of the period- a virtuous, chaste and modest wife who supports her husband in all his endeavors. Battista is not lauded here as her own woman, but as an ideal representation of two powerful Northern Italian families. Her identity is couched in terms of her husband and father- she is the daughter of Alessandro Sforza and the wife of Federico da Montefeltro.

In the sixteenth century, portraiture undergoes a change. The standard pose becomes the ¾ pose rather than the classical profile pose. Backgrounds are no longer a standard landscape or open window, but can vary in content. Women are represented just as realistically and naturalistically as men, but in general, are not very individualized. They are still portrayed as representations of their family’s wealth, power and pedigree. 

[4] Allyson Burgess Williams, "Rewriting Lucrezia Borgia: Propriety, Magnificence, and Piety in Portraits of a Renaissance Duchess," Wives, Widows, Mistresses and Nuns in Early Modern Italy, ed. Katherine A. McIver (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012), 92.