A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Beatrice d’Este
By LIZ HAGER
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include Prologue, Elizabeth I, Nicholaes Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement III, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in the series.
Leonardo da Vinci or Ambrogio de Predis, Beatrice d’Este, ca. 1490
Oil on canvas
(Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy)
Our history begins with Beatrice d’Este, despite the fact that in this portrait she wears no lace. Although lace is explicitly mentioned in documents as early as the 13th century, the first detailed portraits of figures wearing lace generally don’t appear until the 16th century, when lace was widely fashionable among the nobility and growing merchant classes.
It is somewhat curious that Beatrice wears no lace in this portrait. Lace, which could require as many as ten hours of concentrated work to produce a single square inch, was available and highly-coveted. Indeed, an Este family inventory dating from 1493 lists, among a vast array of jewels and personal property, ricamo a reticella, punti and lavoro ad ossa (bone lace), all common laces of the period.
And yet, the portrait is emblematic of its time. Completed at the dawn of the Renaissance (commonly set at 1492), the painting hints at the transformation of the world to come, during which great power and wealth would be accumulated by families in a position to profit from the re-emerging trade along Silk Route. And those families would impress the world with their unapologetic and ostentatious display of wealth, the legacy of which has reached us in the form of various “masterpieces.”
Beatrice was a member of the Este-Sforza family, which joined by marriage two of the oldest reigning and already powerful houses in Italy. The house of Este, which held court in Ferrara, traced its lineage to the 11th century Dukes of Saxony and Bavaria. Beatrice’s father, Ercole I ruled the Ferrara commune for 34 years, catapulting the city-state (and the Estes with it) to an unmatched level of economic prosperity and cultural prominence. The family was renowned for its love of letters and patronage of the arts.
By comparison, the Sforza (“force”) dynasty were young upstarts. At the time of this portrait, the Sforzas controlled another rising city-state, the Duchy of Milan. (Although this would not be for long, as the French ousted Beatrice’s husband Ludvico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in 1498, and this led to centuries of skirmishes between various European factions for control of Milan.)
The houses of Este and Sforza had always been on friendly terms. Since Ludvico was one of the most powerful princes in Italy, he might have been expected to eventually woo the Este daughters. His first choice for a wife was Beatrice’s older sister, Isabella. Ercole I readily saw in the alliance an opportunity to ally Ferrara with powerful Milan as a safeguard against the rival Papal State and Venice. Unfortunately, Isabella was already spoken for. So Ercole proffered up his younger daughter (then under 10 years old). The two were subsequently married in the winter 1490 when Beatrice was 16.
The true attribution of Beatrice’s portrait is still in doubt. Ludvico Sforza was accomplished as a warrior, businessman, and a patron of the arts, who over time commissioned both Ambrogio de Predis and Leonardo for various projects. De Predis was already employed in the Sforza court when Ludvico first invited Leonardo to Milan in 1483 to design an equestrian statue of his father, Duke Francesco Sforza. (Though the Leonardo model was never cast, a “replica” prances today outside the Ippodromo in Milan.) The Duke may have had his doubts throughout the duration of the project, but the patron and artist must have stayed on good terms. Leonardo remained at court, helping the couple with all manner of additional projects, even the interior decor for the marriage celebration. Regrettably, no documentation of a portrait by Leonardo of either the Duke or his wife exists. Further complicating matters, de Predis was known to have assisted Leonardo with many of his Milanese commissions.
We may never know who executed this portrait, but that need not deter from an appreciation of its singularity. Following the portraiture convention established by painters of the Quattrocentro, the artist has chosen to portray his sitter in profile. In doing so, he magnificently captures essence of his sitter, a girl on the threshold of womanhood. Bedecked in the adornments—silk, velvet, pearls and embroidery (brocade) crafted of spun gold threads—afforded her by birthright and marriage, Beatrice looks forward in noble serenity. And at the same time her profile with its upturned nose and slight smile betrays an innocence that must have been the basis of the oft-repeated epithet: la più zentil donna in Italia” (“the sweetest lady in Italy”).
Sir Kenneth Clark—Leonardo da Vinci (Revised Edition)
Cristoforo Romano: bust of Beatrice d’Este
Fashion: Beatrice d’Este’s tomb
Ambrogio de Precis only signed and dated work: Maximilian I
Niccolò Machiavelli—The Prince