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Members' Research Report Archive

More Than a Masterpiece: A Portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga

Eleonora Luciano, National Gallery of Art
Ailsa Mellon Bruce National Gallery of Art Sabbatical Curatorial Fellow, February 1–March 31 and May 1–June 30, 2014


Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), Elisabetta Gonzaga, c. 1500. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Scala / Art Resource, NY

The genres of portraiture and biography developed in parallel during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy—evidence of a culture newly interested in individual fame and accomplishment. Overwhelmingly, by a ratio of about ten to one, men were the subjects of these works; yet at the very top of society a few highly privileged women shine through both in great masterpieces of portraiture and in the extensive documentation of their lives in contemporary sources of all kinds. In these cases lineage trumped gender. My study focuses on a group of important portraits representing well-documented female sitters. I have examined their biographies and portraiture side by side to form case studies of the lives of Renaissance women of the ruling class. During my time at CASVA I have chosen to focus on one sitter in particular, the duchess of Urbino Elisabetta Gonzaga (1471/1472–1526), and on her iconic portrait by Raphael (1483–1520), now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Elisabetta Gonzaga is best known as the much-admired but almost completely silent presiding genius of Baldassarre Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. It is both fitting and misleading that The Courtier should include among its protagonists one of the most profeminine voices of the Renaissance, going so far as to claim equality for the sexes—a position with which none of the book’s interlocutors, probably not even the women, clearly agrees. Here, Elisabetta’s courtly fame is congruous with her refined, virtuous personality. By contrast, her actual life was full of dramatic and difficult turns requiring strength of character, for which women were seldom praised. She was the youngest daughter of Federico Gonzaga, the hunchback third marchese of Mantua, and his German wife, Margarete of Wittelsbach. On February 9, 1489, she married Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the cultivated but sickly son and heir of the great Federico, duke of Urbino. Though they grew to be devoted to one another, the union was marred by Guidobaldo’s impotence and consequent lack of an heir. Their refined and initially wealthy court in Urbino was under frequent threat from the papacy, and Elisabetta was forced into dangerous exile twice, first by Cesare Borgia and later by the Medici Pope Leo X.

During the research phase I became keenly aware that the extant primary sources for Elisabetta are vast, far exceeding what may be considered the norm for a Renaissance princess. This abundance is due to the diligent recordkeeping of the Gonzaga family (so well preserved and studied in the Archivio di Stato, Mantua), to the zealous reportage of chroniclers and ambassadors, and to the large literary and biographical output emanating in the first decade of the sixteenth century from the court at Urbino. The intersection and comparison of these rich and varied sources, in conjunction with the distinguished visual record, have made my research particularly rewarding. Elisabetta’s unique position as a literary patron is attested to by not one but two biographies by the most influential writers of the day: Baldassarre Castiglione (Vita di Guidubaldo duca di Urbino, written in 1508 – 1509, circulated in manuscript, published in print, 1513), and Pietro Bembo (De Guido Ubaldo Feretrio deque Elisabetha Gonzagia Urbini ducibus, written in 1508–1511, circulated in manuscript, first published in print, 1530). In keeping with conventions of the time, Elisabetta’s life is to some extent subsumed into that of her husband, but her character comes through clearly in both texts. In addition, she inspired more than one thousand works of poetry, large and small, forming what amounts to an “Elisabettan” school. All evidence indicates that these tributes were motivated as much by the duchess’ extraordinary personal virtue and kindness as by courtly custom.

Raphael’s portrait Elisabetta Gonzaga is the earliest instance in Renaissance painting of the representation of a woman in a frontal pose. An indication of the young painter’s precocious genius, this innovative directness gains additional complexity if we consider its motivation in the context of the sitter’s character. As an exemplar of Renaissance feminine virtue, Elisabetta is allowed to face the viewer, her gentle, dignified character undisguised and unprotected by the artful placement of a three-quarter or profile view. Her unavoidable gaze and melancholy expression have been considered a result of the sad events of 1502–1503, when Urbino was taken by Cesare Borgia, and so the painting is usually dated to about 1502. Elisabetta’s dress and hairstyle, however, belong to the late 1490s, suggesting an earlier date. As David Alan Brown has proposed, a date of about 1500 is also consistent with the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the painting, which may be due to the artist’s not yet fully developed style.

Italian, 1483 - 1520