Giulio Romano's portrait of Margherita Paleologo has been a fixation of mine for awhile now. I know lots of Italian persona's with equal obsession over some dress or other (often Eleonora de Toledo,) this one is mine. The style from the early 1530's isn't necessarily the most flattering one with the low chest, short bodice and giant sleeves that seem to be sliding off the shoulders, but there is just something about it. It demands attention and gives presence. And then there are is the crazy knotwork.
What the heck is going on with that? That was my first question. This dress doesn't look like anything else at first glance. I just had to know why there was a giant black net over the top of a perfectly sweet pink dress. The pink dress made sense. Pier Francesco di Jacobo Foschi painted another of my favorite 1530's dresses in pink with a black border. There is even a bit of some decorative knotwork in her girdle.
The crazy overdress on the Romano is very different. Even the fact that there IS an overdress is different. There had to be some reason for it. I found the reason in misidentifications of the portrait. Over and over again the Romano portrait is called a likeness of Isabella d'Este. As the sitter looked nothing like Isabella d'Este and Isabella d'Este was nowhere near the proper age for the sitter, there had to be a reason.
Turns out the reason is the pattern on the dress. The pattern is not something random, but instead is a heraldic divisa. That translates to device, but the original usage meant a little more so I'm using the original. Currently, the only use of divisa is for the interlaced ribbons attached to a bull in the ring identifying the breeder. The knotwork is something similar. It is a pattern created by Niccolo da Corregio at the behest of Isabella d'Este.
Isabella was a fashion trendsetter, and it is thanks to her that the balzo hat became a thing, but while she did popularize the knotwork pattern, it was still particularly hers. There's a letter from 1493 from her sister Beatrice asking for permission to use the pattern. While this portrait of Beatice by Ambrogio de Predis isn't specifically dated that year, I like to assume it is close, as the pattern finds its way on to the edges of her dress.
Now, as to why this very Isabella pattern finds its way onto someone that is not Isabella? The portrait was done of her daughter-in-law Margharita Paleologo on the occasion of her marriage to to Federico Gonzaga. Adding more to the symbols are the phrases "vincolo d'amore" (bond of love) and "vincolo di sangue" (blood-tie.) So, daughter-in-law dearest is all tied up in bonds of family and branded by her mother-in-law.
While I'm playing with how I'm going to adapt the design-- or just leave it as is, Ill leave you with a few examples of other people equally obsessed with this dress. I'm very much not the first to freak out about it and it turns up in art more than you'd think. The Pre-Raphaelites especially had a thing for it.
|Vanity by Frank Cowper (1907) Royal Academy of Arts|
|Edward Burne-Jones Sidonis von Bork 1860|
|Venetian Ladies Listening to a Serenade, Frank Cowper|
For further reading:
'From Mimesis to Fantasia: The Quattrocento Vocabulary of Creation, Inspiration and Genius in the Visual Arts' by Martin Kemp, Viator (Los Angeles,) VIII, 1977, pp 347-98