A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Beatrice d’Este


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.


Da Vinci—Bearice d'Este

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 reticellapunti 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”).

Wider Connections

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

6 Responses to “A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Beatrice d’Este”

  1. Barbara Goodale Says:

    My comment is with regard to the photo accompanying this article as well as the many of the same that I have seen via the internet in articles concerning Beatrice D’Este.

    I have acquired a 1903 first edition of Julia Cartwright’s book entitled “Beatrice D’Este, Duchess of Milan” in which there is a duplicate of the photo in this article. However, the caption underneath the portrait says “Bianca Sforza by Ambrogio de Predis”. It seems almost inconceivable that the book so deeply researched and pretty much the benchmark of Beatrice’s life could contain such an error, but it is also difficult to believe that so many other references are wrong. Is there a known explanation to this dilemma?

    • Barbara,
      How I love a good mystery!

      First, let me say that I am neither a Leonardo or a de Precis expert. But I did run into the dispute you mention while researching this pos†—i.e. who really did paint the portrait above? No one disputed the sitter’s identity. I can offer this insight about both issues:

      1.Ambrogio de Precis did indeed work in Leonardo’s workshop in Milan; in fact, it was through de Precis that Leonardo was invited to the Sforza “court.” They were his patrons for pretty much everything he did in Milan. The two artists worked on many pieces together, and many conjecture that the portrait is actually his. De Precis left only one signed and dated portrait (see link in the Wider Connections section above), so impossible perhaps to ever tell who really painted “Beatrice.”

      2. As far as I can figure out Bianca Sforza was Beatrice’s niece-in-law, although they were more or less the same age. I found at least 2 portraits of Bianca. It is amazingly similar they both are to the Beatrice portrait; both have been attributed to de Precis.

      See them here:


      Just to confuse matters further, see this portrait identified by some as Bianca, and attributed (disputed of course) to Leonardo.

      I looked as closely as I could (in pictures) to all 4 portraits and concluded that:

      The two de Precis portraits are clearly different from Beatrice portrait above. Leonardo drawing not as glaringly different, but profile is different, especially the turn of the nose. . . I’m assuming you looked carefully at the portrait in your book and is indeed the portrait above.

      3. So, if your portrait is indeed the one of this post, I can only suggest that you rule out that it was a mistake that went uncorrected through proofreading stage. Is there text near the portrait about Bianca? If not, I might be inclined toward the proofreading explanation. (You could also look at later editions of the book to confirm that corrections were/were not made.)

      Although I didn’t specifically research this angle, my money is on the possibility that new scholarship came to light in the years after 1903 that caused scholars to change the sitter’s identity. As you probably know, changes in attribution/identity occurred with great frequency through the 20th century as the standards of Art History scholarship rose (scholars dug deeper and questioned more)…

      Is there anything you’d like to add?

      • Sascha Reimann Says:

        I carried out research on this portrait for two years and I concluded that with a high probability this portrait is that of Anna Maria Sforza. Anyone who is interested in the research report is invited to send me an e-mail to reimannsascha (at) yahoo (dot) de.

  2. This is not Beatrice de Este!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Sascha Reimann Says:

    Dear Liz

    I was happy to having found your website and I am very glad that you invest your time in doing research about this very beautiful picture. When I discovered it, it was really an eyecatcher and I was starting to do some research on it by myself. I would like to ask you some questions:

    1) Do some other professionals share the opinion that the portrayed lady is Beatrice d’Este?
    2) The Ambrosiana Gallery provides some information about this picture on their website http://www.ambrosiana.eu/cms/ritratto_di_dama-1248.html but they don’t even mention that the sitter could be Beatrice.
    3) In case the portrayed lady is indeed Beatrice d’Este, do you have some information whether the picture does really depict her real appearance.

    I am looking forward to receive your reply.

    Best Regards,


  4. This portrait was bequeathed to the Ambrosiana by cardinal
    Borromeo. His catalogue inscription reads: “Rittrato d’una Duchessa
    di Milano, … di mano di Leonardo.” It looks like Julia Cartwright
    was intuitively certain that the portrait was that of Beatrice
    d’Este, hence it being a frontispiece. It appears that the
    Ambrosiana is ready to call it the portrait of Beatrice, the way it
    was known earlier in the XX century. The portrait doesn’t
    correspond to the drawing of the Duchess of Milan Isabella of
    Aragona, which is also in Ambrosiana. It couldn’t have been the
    portrait of Ludovico’s daughter Bianca, for she was never the
    duchess of Milan. The only other Duchess of Milan,during Leonardo’s
    tenure there, is Beatrice d’Este. You should compare this portrait
    to the portrait at the Ashmolean.

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