The Dog, the Unicorn, and the Wheel: “Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s ‘Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn’” at the Cincinnati Art Museum, October 3, 2015-January 3, 2016

October 21st, 2015  |  Published in *, October 2015

First of all, forget the unicorn. Or at the very least, hold it in abeyance. X-ray analysis of the painting shows us that before there was a unicorn on this young woman’s lap, there used to be a dog. And before skilled restoration turned it back into a unicorn again in the early 20th century, the object on which her hands rested would spend 250 years as the wheel on which Saint Catherine of Alexandria was broken. This is a painting that’s been through a lot. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the unicorn is the way the young woman’s fingers are entwined with its legs. Is that a motherly sense of protection, or is the point that the tiny unicorn is trapped?

Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, circa 1505–6, oil on canvas transferred from panel, Galleria Borghese, Rome, inv. 371

Focus instead on her age. According to the curatorial notes on the exhibition’s wall, the scholarly consensus is that this is a portrait of Laura Orsini della Rovere, the daughter of Giulia Farnese Orsini, who was the mistress of Pope Alexander VI, known as the Borgia Pope, who would then be the father. Laura was born in 1492, making her about 14 at the time of Raphael’s portrait (if, of course, this indeed is who it is). So much of the painting makes sense with that in mind. Though the painting gives her a sensual presence—her shoulders are fully displayed and we can see her collarbones beneath the skin—her body is in some ways undeveloped. Her beautifully-painted clothes (the lawn is gauzy, the velvet is velvety, and you can practically hear the stiff creak of her tooled leather belt) bind her tightly, keeping her from showing much shape, aside from her high waist. One of my favorite details is the group of stray hairs wandering from her elaborate coiffeur, which I read as a sign of youthful disorder. There is something blank and baby-faced about her expression, which naturally makes more sense if she is only 14.

But there is also some mysterious and equivocal about that face. Her lips are slightly pursed and she looks a little distrustful. If the identification proposed in the wall panels is correct, this is an engagement portrait, which places into context the simple but elegant pendant she is wearing of pearl, ruby, and sapphire. It is a gift, or part of her trousseau. Again, assuming that this is Laura Orsini della Rovere, it is 1505 and she has already had three “dissolved betrothals”; the fourth time seems to have been the charm. (How did a 14 year old girl possibly have time to have had three prior engagements collapse?) It is hard to see her portrait as a celebration of power or wealth or earthly pleasures. Some of the complications of her expression may now seem to be something that goes along with bearing the dual burdens of high social class and low social legitimacy.

The Raphael, on loan from the Borghese Gallery in Rome, constitutes a single painting show. The installation works hard—as indeed it must—to establish some contexts for this one remarkable work. On one wall hangs Jean Duvet’s engraving “The Unicorn Purifying the Water with His Horn” (c. 1540-1560). The argument here is that Raphael’s changing the dog on her lap to a dog-sized unicorn is a desire to affirm purity over faithfulness, perhaps a necessary iconographic switch for a painting honoring a fourth engagement. Elsewhere, the exhibit tries to place this painting in the context of Raphael’s career. From this perspective, it is a young man’s painting, the work of an artist who has just left the studio of Perugino and is now in the Florence of Leonardo da Vinci.  A more modern style of painting overlies earlier modes. This helps us see how important drawing (as opposed to brushwork) is to the young Raphael, and to notice how the picture’s beautiful shadows are rendered linearly, built up out of assemblages of single hairline strokes. The landscape behind the sitter is rudimentary, more there for a chance to paint a lovely wall of blue behind her than to indicate a sense of place. It is fair to say that this painting does not testify to Raphael’s being one of the pioneers of the Renaissance spatial imagination. The Leonardo that spoke to young Raphael’s talent was not the figure of indefatigable curiosity nor the one who pressed the limits of gender identity. As the exhibition helpfully suggests, the Leonardo that matters is the maker of the painting we know as the Mona Lisa. (Raphael sketched that portrait while it was still being labored over in da Vinci’s studio.) This painting shows that one crucial lesson Raphael had absorbed from Leonardo was that the true portrait is the enigmatic one.

This is not, of course, about that famous and infuriating smile. The equivocal nature of Raphael’s portrait comes from its combination of sensuality and other-worldliness. There is something in her that we see in some Byzantine versions of Mary, the woman distrustful about the demands and sacrifices about to be asked of her. It is all the more touching that we would see this quality in a wedding portrait. It is not that hard to imagine how little it would take to transform the secular portrait into an altarpiece. Replace the unicorn with a lamb—or, of course, a baby—and turn the blue background to a gold one. For sure, we’d have to cover up her shoulders and lose the jewelry. But then her complex expression would have an even more powerful resonance. It puts her in harmony with the 16th century tradition of Petrarchan ladies (as the wall text partially notes): I am the figure of the woman who is too worldly for you, I am the figure of the woman who is too other-worldly for you. Stay back, stay back, stay back.

The final way that the CAM show contextualizes the painting is by drawing attention to its tangled history as an object in the world. It came into the Borghese collection by marriage and inheritance. By the middle of the 18th century, it had lost its association with Raphael, and was variously identified as having been painted by Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Andrea del Sarto. Even more interesting, somewhere in the late 17th century, it had lost its identity as a wedding portrait altogether. While in the Borghese collections, it was deliberately over-painted by an unknown artist and became St. Catherine of Alexandria. Her shoulders were covered up but her neck was still bare and she still wore the pendant. The dog that had become a unicorn now became the wheel of Catherine’s torture and martyrdom. It is tempting to think that the Catholicism of the original work was now being pressed into use by the Counter-Reformation, bringing a new sensuality to holy truths.

Her conversion may be opportunistic and even shabby, but the ease with which it was accomplished suggests the closeness in the original between the secular and the divine. Perhaps it is true that most renderings of female beauty in the High Renaissance are just one naked baby away from being a madonna. Of all the paintings in the CAM’s collection that might have been suggestively hung in the Raphael’s vicinity, I would most liked to have seen the great Bronzino “Eleanora of Toledo” (c. 1549). The sumptuousness of Eleanora’s wealth contrasts markedly with the provisional wealth of Laura, and Eleanora shows what it looks like to absolutely sure of the nature and weight of social status. While she is no spring chicken, unlike Raphael’s sitter, she still has her hand out protectively on the shoulder of her son, with echoes of Mary and her Son.

Early 20th century scholarship restored the painting to Raphael and recovered the true nature of its subject. And there she sits. Audiences in the gallery when I was there could be seen to visibly wince at the description of the over-painting being removed by scraping old paint away with sharp knives. And as one gallery visitor noted to a friend, “Even if she is getting married, she doesn’t look very happy about it.” But think about her age. She’s 14. This could be Shakespeare’s Juliet with even sketchier, more opportunistic, and more brutal parents than the Capulets. Romeo is out of the question. She is on her own. This is a young woman who is just at the border of inheriting the destiny that a young body and a beautiful face will make possible. Self-possession—and the gold pendant—are all she has. In this context, it is interesting to reconsider the translation of the dog in her lap to a unicorn. While the iconographic significance of a dog would have been perfectly understandable to the painting’s original audiences, it is also true that it might just have passed for a pet, and served as a signifier of her youthfulness. No one has a pet unicorn. By putting the unicorn in her lap, the painting carries with it a reminder that it may be the fate of wealthy daughters that they are obliged to take on significance over which they have no control. Even before the young bride-to-be was converted into St. Catherine, Raphael’s portrait of young Laura was always the painting of a martyrdom. This makes the equivocal nature of her look—with hints of both resignation and defiance, among other things—just this side of heart-breaking.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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