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Venice 2014

Isabella of Portugal-The Beloved Empress

Isabella of Portugal

Isabella of Portugal

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), 1548,

Museo del Prado, Madrid

oil on canvas, 117x93 cm

Although portraits undergo a stylistic change throughout the sixteenth century, the main motive for making and commissioning them stays the same.  The portrait was commissioned in order to represent an individual, both physically and characteristically. Even though portraits were individualized, portraits of princes and other powerful personages in particular, were idealized. They also served as a memento of a beloved friend who is absent or dead. Titian’s female portraiture embodies and exemplifies these principles, but also uses them to create a portrait of an individual, rather than a type.

Titian’s Portrait of Isabella of Portugal is probably the least individualized of his mid-century female portraits, but still contains her personality and the tender feelings of her husband, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The portrait, done in 1548 at the behest of Charles V, is posthumous, since Isabella died in 1539. [5]  She is shown seated and holding a book, as if she has just stopped reading for a moment in order to gaze out of the window. Her skin is fashionably pale. The rich cloth of her gown and the multitude of jewels all suggest the wealth and power of Isabella and the Holy Roman Empire.

Although this portrait is representational in nature and Titian never met the empress, her personality and the love Charles V had for his wife are obvious. The thoughtful expression in her eyes, the outdated dress and the individualized face are all indications of the individualization of the portrait. [6] The long nose and small lips are individual features that distinguish Isabella and make this a recognizable portrait of her rather than an idealized template of a woman.

When this portrait is compared to earlier examples of posthumous portraiture, such as the Battista Sforza by Piero della Francesca, it is easy to see the differences. Although both women are extremely pale, Isabella’s pallor is fashionable and lively, while Battista’s skin is deathly pale. The earlier portrait shows the sitter in a stiff profile pose, dressed in an extremely representational costume. In contrast, Titian’s work shows Isabella seated in a ¾ pose, which is more natural, and in a costume, that while representational, is also personal. The portrait seems to have captured a moment in Isabella’s life, and the formal elements, while representational, also come together to form an individualized image of a beloved woman.

[5] Filippo Pedrocco. Titian. trans. Corrado Federici  (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2001), 207

[6] Filippo Pedrocco. Titian. trans. Corrado Federici  (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2001), 207