One of Titian’s most iconic creations, popularly known as La Bella—the beautiful woman—will grace the galleries of the Kimbell Art Museum. Titian was the most celebrated artist in Renaissance Venice.
La Bella was first owned by Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, a mercenary military leader who commanded the armies of Florence, the Papal States, and later the Republic of Venice. In May 1536 the duke sent a letter to his agent in Venice inquiring about the progress of “that portrait of that woman in a blue dress,” whose completion he eagerly awaited. The painting in question was doubtless La Bella, which is today in the collection of the Galleria Palatina in Florence. The canvas has been cleaned recently, and the removal of discolored varnish has revealed the splendor of the woman’s blue dress, painted with costly ultramarine, and the luminosity of her flesh.
Even without the duke’s letter, the painting could be dated to the mid-1530s based on the style of the woman’s magnificent dress and accessories. Her gown of blue damask is decorated with delicate gold embroidery and small bows and offset with a snow-white camicia, or undergarment, trimmed with fine ruffles at the neckline and cuffs. As was the fashion, the lower sleeves are a different fabric and color—a violet-red with slashes that allow her camicia to be pulled through in decorative puffs. Standing majestically, the woman clasps a luxurious, long, gold belt, whose oversized beads may well contain perfume, like musk or amber. With her other hand she points to a sable or marten fur over her forearm. Called a zibellino, this costly accessory was fashionable in the early 16th century. The hairstyle, arranged in plaits and curls atop her head, is also modish. Her other jewelry—a fine gold chain and earrings set with large rubies and pearls—is unostentatious but nonetheless luxurious. Expensive jewelry and clothing were typical betrothal or marriage gifts, though they were also given to lovers and courtesans. An outward display of a woman’s beauty and virtue, such adornments were a source of pride for noble Venetian families. Their lavishness, and the period of time that they could be worn, were periodically restricted by the city’s sumptuary laws, although such regulations were often ignored.
Over the years, various identities have been proposed for the woman. She was said to be Violante, the daughter of the painter Palma Vecchio and Titian’s purported lover—a romantic but fictitious legend. The suggestion that she was an idealized portrayal of Francesco Maria I della Rovere’s consort, Eleonora Gonzaga, was later dismissed since the duke would not have referred to the duchess as “that woman” in the letter to his agent. In fact, Titian painted a portrait of Eleonora very shortly after La Bella that befits her mature age and her exalted station; her attire—which modestly covers her neckline—is of a similar style but much more lavish, with abundant gold accessories studded with precious jewels.
It has been noted that Titian paints the same model—or ideal beauty—in several other pictures from this period, including the so-called Venus of Urbino (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), which was acquired by Guidobaldo della Rovere, Francesco Maria and Eleonora’s son and heir. In 1538, Guidobaldo sent a letter to the family agent instructing him not to leave Venice without “the nude woman”—again unnamed. Paintings such as the Venus of Urbino often decorated the conjugal bedchamber, and its unabashed amorous imagery likely celebrates love in a marital context. By contrast, with her elegant and dignified demeanor, La Bella evinces a more discreet sensuality. The very fine transparent veil does nothing to conceal her décolleté (Venetian noblewomen were renowned for their low-cut gowns), and a long tress of hair has escaped and fallen to her shoulder, subtly displaying her charms.
As the reference to “that portrait of that woman in a blue dress” suggests, La Bella remains anonymous and is just that—a beautiful woman. Indeed, her classicizing features conform to a physical type that Titian developed some years earlier, which argues against any attempt to recognize a particular individual. This paragon of beauty is a demonstration of Titian’s brilliance as a painter, his genius for creating poetic images of loveliness.
This “guest of honor” has been made possible by the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture and is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Following its display at the Kimbell, La Bella will be shown at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, and the Portland Art Museum, Oregon.