Irene di Spilimbergo was about 20 years old when this painting was begun. Along with a pendant portrait of her older sister, Emilia, the two paintings were probably initially commissioned in anticipation of the prospective marriages of the two sitters. Instead, with the premature death of Irene two years later, the function of her portrait was suddenly changed to become an elegy for what might have been. The inscription on the lower right reads, “If the fates had allowed.”
Irene and her sister were educated under the supervision of their maternal grandfather, the wealthy Venetian citizen Zuan Paolo da Ponte, who encouraged their interest in the arts. Irene was remarkable in her ambition to excel. She persuaded Titian, a family friend who had painted both her grandfather and her mother, to allow her to copy his works and to give her instruction as a painter. But her very determination apparently led to overexertion and hence to illness and early death.
In honor of the gifted young woman who had died at such a tragically early age, two years later a volume of nearly 400 Latin and Italian poems was published. Irene’s portrait seems to echo the tone of that volume. The unicorn on the left refers to her perpetual virginity. The laurel crown in her hand presumably alludes to her achievements in the arts, and the evergreen palm to her everlasting fame.
The portraits of the sisters Irene and
Fabio di Maniago, Storia della belle arti friulane (Udine, 1819), frontispiece. See Caterina Furlan, “Tiziano nella storiografia artistica friulana tra Sette e Ottocento,” Studi Tizianeschi 3 (2005): 92–95.
Emilia (1536–1585) and her younger sister Irene (1538–1559) were the daughters of the Friulian nobleman Adriano di Spilimbergo and Giulia, daughter of the wealthy Venetian citizen Zuan Paolo da Ponte. According to Giorgio Vasari, Titian painted the portraits of the members of three generations of the family: “Among the portraits by Titian is one . . . of Paolo da Ponte, whose beautiful young daughter Giulia (who was a confidante of his) Titian also portrayed, as he did the lovely Signora Irene, a young woman well versed in literature and music who was studying design. When she died about seven years ago she was honoured by nearly every Italian writer.”
Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists: A Selection, trans. George Bull (Harmondsworth, 1965), 459–460; Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, ed. Rosanna Bettarini and Paola Barocchi (Florence, 1987), 6:167–168: “La signora Irene, vergine bellissima, letterata, musica et incaminata nel disegno, la quale, morendo circa sette anni sono, fu celebrata quasi da tutte le penne degli scrittori d’Italia.”
See Tiziano ritrovato: Il ritratto di messer Zuan Paulo da Ponte (Venice, 1998). The portrait of Zuan Paolo, which in 1998 was with the dealer Pietro Scarpa in Venice, carries the inscription on the reverse: +ZAN PAULO DA PONTE+/ SPILINBERGO. The picture appears to be in poor condition but authentic. Zuan Paolo’s Memoriale is reputedly in a private collection in Venice and is not easily accessible.
Dionigi Atanagi, Rime di diversi nobilissimi et eccellentissimi autori in morte della Signora Irene delle Signore di Spilimbergo (Venice, 1561).
Atanagi’s biography of Irene, together with further modern research, provides considerable information about her personality and accomplishments.
Dionigi Atanagi, Rime di diversi nobilissimi et eccellentissimi autori in morte della Signora Irene delle Signore di Spilimbergo (Venice, 1561), under “Vita della Signora Irene,” unpaginated; see also Ruggero Zotti, Irene di Spilimbergo (Udine, 1914), 22–28. A useful recent biographical sketch of Irene is provided by Anne Jacobsen Schutte, “Irene di Spilimbergo: The Image of a Creative Woman in Late Renaissance Italy,” Renaissance Quarterly 44 (1991): 42–61.
Dionigi Atanagi, Rime di diversi nobilissimi et eccellentissimi autori in morte della Signora Irene delle Signore di Spilimbergo (Venice, 1561), 114, 146, 165; Anton Maria Amadi, Ragionamento di M. Anton Maria Amadi: Intorno a quel sonetto del Petrarca . . . (Padua, 1563). For Emilia’s marriage see Anne Jacobsen Schutte, “Irene di Spilimbergo: The Image of a Creative Woman in Late Renaissance Italy,” Renaissance Quarterly 44 (1991): 44.
On June 28, 1560, a few months after Irene’s death the previous December, her grandfather noted in his Memoriale that a portrait of her—and presumably also one of her sister—had been begun two years previously by Gian Paolo Pace, but that this painter had sketched it so poorly that the patron asked Titian to complete it.
The first passage, dated June 28, 1560, reads as follows: “Mandai a messer Tutian per l’opera per lui fata nel retrato della nostra già benedetta memoria d’Irene abozata assai malamaente da Ser Zuan Paulo de Pase et lassata imperfetta per dui anni si che rimase ben che la poverina andò a miglior vita. Ma Messer Tutian per sua gratia si tolse il cargo de volerlo finir et conzata talmente che si può dir per certo che se fusse sta presente meglio non si poteva desiderar. Gli mandai ducati 6 viniciani et per sua cortesia se a contenta che mertia assai più” (I sent for Messer Titian to undertake the work he did on the portrait of our Irene of blessed memory. This had been begun very badly by Gian Paolo Pace two years before the poor girl went to a better life, but was left unfinished by him. But Messer Titian graciously assumed the burden of completing it, making her appear as if really present, in a way that was better than one could possibly have hoped for. I sent him six Venetian ducats, which he courteously accepted, although his work was worth much more). The second passage reads: “Il qual M. Tutian per haver nella mente la sua effigie l’a finita e fata si che se l’havesse avuto presente non l’haveria potuto far meglio” (Titian had retained her likeness in his mind, and when finishing her portrait he made her appear as if present, in a way that could scarcely be bettered). See Ferruccio Carreri, “Report in La Difesa, 17–18 August 1911,” L’arte 14 (1911): 394, repro.; Michelangelo Muraro, “Il memoriale de Zuan Paolo da Ponte,” Archivio veneto 79 (1949): 83.
Elsje van Kessel, The Lives of Paintings: Presence, Agency and Likeness in Venetian Art of the Sixteenth Century (Berlin, 2017), 145.
Elsje van Kessel, The Lives of Paintings: Presence, Agency and Likeness in Venetian Art of the Sixteenth Century (Berlin, 2017), 137, 146–150.
Fabio di Maniago, Storia della belle arti friulane (Udine, 1819), 88–90.
The traditional attribution of the portraits to Titian, based on the account of Vasari, and also on the very similar one by Carlo Ridolfi, was still unchallenged at the beginning of the 20th century.
For Vasari, see Entry note 2; Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, overo Le vite de gl’illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato, ed. Detlev von Hadeln (Berlin, 1914), 1:194.
Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, Titian, His Life and Times (London, 1877), 2:301–303.
For these events, see Corrado Ricci, “Ritratti ‘tizianeschi’ di Gian Paolo Pace,” Rivista del R. Istituto d’Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte 7 (1929): 257–258. The rejection of the traditional attribution to Titian is recorded by Oscar Ulm, “I ritratti d’Irene ed Emilia di Spilimbergo erroneamente attribuiti a Tiziano,” Emporium 31 (1910): 126–135.
Michelangelo Muraro, “Il memoriale de Zuan Paolo da Ponte,” Archivio veneto 79 (1949): 82–84. See also Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, “I ritratti Spilimbergo a Washington,” Emporium 67 (1953): 99–107.
In the absence of the original document, it is difficult to assess the reliability or otherwise of the passages published by Carreri; yet it seems likely that even if they were tampered with, they were not, after all, complete fabrications. It is true that in terms of their aesthetic quality neither of the Spilimbergo portraits can be accepted as the work of Titian, even in part; and although a case has sometimes been made for seeing the Irene as superior to the Emilia—for instance by the Tietzes, Harold Wethey, and Fern Rusk Shapley
Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, “I ritratti Spilimbergo a Washington,” Emporium 67 (1953): 99–107; Harold Wethey, The Paintings of Titian (London, 1971), 2:178, 198; and Fern Rusk Shapley, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings (Washington, DC, 1979), 1:500–503.
Whether or not this assistant was Gian Paolo Pace is another matter. Again, the mention in the Memoriale that he was responsible for making a start at least on the portrait of Irene may be regarded as reliable, since no unscrupulous historian or dealer would have had any interest in inventing a story about a painter who was almost entirely obscure. Since 1911 Pace has, in fact, been widely accepted as the author of the portraits, in whole or in part, including by Corrado Ricci, the Tietzes, Ettore Camesasca, Wethey, and Giorgio Tagliaferro.
Corrado Ricci, “Ritratti ‘tizianeschi’ di Gian Paolo Pace,” Rivista del R. Istituto d’Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte 7 (1929): 257; Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, “I ritratti Spilimbergo a Washington,” Emporium 67 (1953): 99–107; Ettore Camesasca, ed., Lettere sull’arte di Pietro Aretino, comm. Fidenzio Pertile (Milan, 1960), 3:397; Harold Wethey, The Paintings of Titian (London, 1971), 2:178, 198; Giorgio Tagliaferro in Le botteghe di Tiziano (Florence, 2009), 168–172. Shapley, however, suspicious of Carreri’s document, rejected the attribution to Pace, and gave the picture to an anonymous follower of Titian. Berenson retained the attribution to Titian he had adopted in 1894, 1916, and 1932. See Fern Rusk Shapley, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings (Washington, DC, 1979), 1:500–503; and Bernard Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Venetian School (London, 1957), 1:192.
Mattia Biffis, “Di Zuan Paolo Pace, chierico e laico,” Studi Tizianeschi 7 (2012): 55–56, 64.
Sometimes associated with the pair is a stylistically and compositionally similar Portrait of a Woman, formerly in the Quincy Shaw collection, Boston, and the Peterkin collection, Andover, Massachusetts. Since it is smaller than the pair (72 × 48 cm), Lionello Venturi suggested that it was Titian’s autograph modello for the Irene.
As reported by Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, “I ritratti Spilimbergo a Washington,” Emporium 67 (1953): 104.
Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, “I ritratti Spilimbergo a Washington,” Emporium 67 (1953): 99–107.
Francesco Valcanover, L’opera completa di Tiziano (Milan, 1969), 138, no. 583.
Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, Titian, His Life and Times (London, 1877), 2:303.
Linda Borean, “Il carteggio di Abraham Hume e Giovanni Maria Sasso,” in Il collezionismo a Venezia e nel Veneto ai tempi della Serenissima, ed. Bernard Aikema, Rosella Lauber, and Max Seidel (Venice, 2005), 328.
March 21, 2019
lower right on base of column: SI FATA / TVLISSENT (If the fates had allowed)
Commissioned by the Spilimbergo family, Spilimbergo, Italy; by inheritance to Count Giulio di Spilimbergo, Domanins, by 1819; by inheritance to Count Niccolò d'Attimis Maniago, Florence, by 1904; and Count Enrico d'Attimis Maniago, Florence, until 1909; Elia Volpi [1858-1938], Florence; sold 1909 to (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London and New York); sold October 1909 to Peter A.B. Widener [1834-1915], Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; Inheritance from the Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park.
The painting was executed on a medium-weight twill-weave fabric, which was prepared with a white ground followed by a thin dark brown imprimatura layer. The artist applied the paint wet-into-wet, often using a well-laden brush to produce impasto. The x-radiographs
The support was lined and the tacking margins were removed, and although cusping is only apparent on the top and bottom edges, there is no indication that the painting has been reduced in size. The paint is now in poor condition, with the impasto disrupted by the cupped and crushed surface, and it is covered with thick, yellowed varnish and copious overpaint. The overpaint blurs the modeling in many places. The inscription has been reinforced, and only the first two words are visible in the x-radiograph.
Joanna Dunn and Peter Humfrey based on the examination reports by William Leisher, Mary Bustin, and Joanna Dunn
March 21, 2019
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