This rediscovered panel, showing Isabella of Aragon, Duchess of Milan, restores a picture that had been lost for over sixty years to its rightful place amongst Milanese court portraiture of the late quattrocento. Once part of the historic Rothschild collection at the Château de Ferrières, its recent restoration has uncovered the identifying inscription lower right, which had been obscured by overpaint when it was last seen in public in 1953.
By the 1480s Milan had become a dominant power in the peninsula. Ludovico Maria Sforza, il Moro (1452-1508), presided over a court that was one of the most resplendent in Renaissance Italy, leaving a clear imprint on the visual culture of the era, a position consolidated when Leonardo arrived in the city in 1482, entering the household of Ludovico. In 1488, Isabella of Aragon, the daughter of Alfonso II, King of Naples, made the journey from the south to Milan, promised in marriage to Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan, the nephew of Ludovico. Although the marriage would last only a short time - Gian Galeazzo died in 1494 - and Isabella would soon leave the city to become the Duchess of Bari in 1500, her time in Lombardy, and in particular the events surrounding her marriage, provided moments of extraordinary splendour. The wedding itself, in February 1489, indeed, was recorded as one of the greatest spectacles in fifteenth-century Milan. The city was elaborately decorated, with juniper garlands abounding, for a procession that began in the Castello Sforzesco and ended in the Piazza del Duomo: temporary structures were erected outside the Duomo, including a magnificent triumphal arch, an amphitheatre and an arcade. Although no record exists of the artists behind the design of these festivities, there has long been speculation over the level of collaboration provided by Leonardo himself, not least as he illustrated in detail in his sketchbooks the very type of the juniper vaults and columns that would go into the construction of some of the arcade, together with designs that closely match other structures made for the event (for more see R. Schofield and R. Tavernor, ‘A Humanist Description of the Architecture for the Wedding of Gian Galeazzo Sforza and Isabella d’Aragona (1489)’, Papers of the British School at Rome, vol. 56, 1988, pp. 213-40). Leonardo’s involvement, however, is certain in another celebration of the marriage that took place on 13 January 1490. He was commissioned by Ludovico to design a Festa del Paradiso, a spectacle of dance and light, which played out beneath a set that involved planets orbiting the Sala Verde of the Ducal Palace, all to pay homage to the young Duchess.
The profile portrait format was frequently used in courtly circles under Ludovico’s rule. It was favoured by Ambrogio de Predis and Bernardino de’ Conti, artists who have both been proposed as authors for the present panel, and whose roles in producing images for the Sforza court is well documented. Of the two, de Predis would seem to be the more convincing candidate, with comparable elements in the portrait featuring elsewhere in his oeuvre. The sumptuous headdress and pearls of Isabella in the present panel, for example, can be compared to the court dress worn by Bianca Maria Sforza, the sister of Gian Galeazzo, in the portrait by de Predis in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (inv. no. 1942.9.53). It is thought that Isabella herself was responsible for introducing this hairstyle, with its centre parting and long plait, to the Milanese court, bringing a Spanish fashion from Naples to the north.
A record of the picture in the image library of the Biblioteca Berenson helps trace some critical passages of the picture’s history, notably its former place in the collection of Baron Édouard Alphonse James de Rothschild, at the Château de Ferrières, built outside of Paris for Édouard’s grandfather, Baron James de Rothschild (1792-1868), the founder of the French branch of the family. This record corresponds to two literary references that describe the picture precisely, and place it at Ferrières by at least 1906, according to Von Seidlitz. Malaguzzi Valeri describes her appearance in 1917: ‘ha gli occhi bruni, i capelli biondi rossicci, con la solita lunga treccia della rite intessuta di perle dietro le spalle. Sul capo ha una cuffia pure ornata di perle: veste un abito rosso scuro con scollatura quadrata, allacciato sul davanti. Porta scritto, sul davanti a destra, il nome della principessa.’ (op. cit.). This description matches the Berenson archive image, which is given to de Predis, where the inscription appears strengthened, and the figure herself covered by unnecessary overpaint, perhaps in an effort to ‘modernise’ her appearance. The picture was though already at Ferrières several decades before these literary references, as shown by its depiction in a watercolour by Eugène Lami, where it is seen hanging behind a portrait of Alphonse James de Rothschild, Édouard's father. By 1953, when the work was reproduced in the Burlington Magazine, the inscription had been obscured completely and a significant degree of the overpaint removed. An attribution was proposed at that time to Bernardino de’ Conti. Furthermore, a derivation of the composition, showing the figure in reverse, is also recorded by Berenson as being formerly in the renowned collection of Baron Herzog, Budapest, in 1925, before passing to Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. It is quite possible that the present picture entered the Rothschild collection at an earlier date, perhaps alongside another Milanese profile portrait that was acquired by James de Rothschild and recently appeared on the market (see Sotheby’s, London, 4 July 2018, lot 43, £550,000).