The attribution of this fascinating portrait has been much debated. It is unusual both for the plainness of the sitter and the box-like character of the setting. Was it intended to have funerary connotations, establishing a commemorative function for the portrait, or is the purpose of the emphatic perspective and the cast shadow to assert the illusionistic "presence" of the sitter? The work thus poses fundamental questions about the uses of portraiture in fifteenth-century Florence. The picture dates about 1445–50.
Few fifteenth-century portraits present such a conundrum as this one showing a remarkably plain-faced woman, her elaborately bound hair wrapped, helmet-fashion, around her head, her harsh profile set implacably against a curious architectural niche brightly illuminated by a diagonal shaft of light (the sky is largely repainted, but the rest of the painting is in relatively good condition). Given the fact that an architectural setting was a rarity in early fifteenth-century Italian portraiture, what is the meaning of the one depicted here? Was it intended to have funerary connotations, establishing a commemorative function for the portrait, or is the purpose of the emphatic perspective and the cast shadow to assert the illusionistic "presence" of the sitter? ("Through painting, the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time," wrote Alberti in a suggestive passage of De pictura, II.25.)
The profile format may have been de rigueur in mid-century Florence, especially for female portraits, but why does this sitter stare so fixedly, and is she to be imagined as though looking through an opening, as in Lippi's Portrait of a Man and Woman at a Casement (MMA 89.15.19)? If so, why is the lighting so emphatically from above, so that the sitter's ear casts a long, diagonal shadow across her neck and the shadow of the head is projected low, against the lateral wall? At a time when female portraits tended to be formulaic and idealizing so as to bring the woman's features into conformity with an ideal of beauty, why is this one so notably unflattering? These are not merely rhetorical questions: they indicate the parameters of our understanding of early Renaissance portraiture and the conventions and functions that informed it.
No less enigmatic is the matter of authorship. (The suggestion that the picture is a fake—occasionally expressed orally—is not borne out by a technical examination.) Initially catalogued as a work by Filippo Lippi, the picture has been ascribed to his pupil Fra Diamante (Berenson 1922, 1928, 1932), to Giovanni di Francesco da Rovezzano (Longhi 1952, Zeri 1971, Benati 1996), to a follower of Paolo Uccello (Pope-Hennessy and Christiansen 1980, Jansen 1987), and to Fra Carnevale (Joannides 1989 and Volpe, in Boskovits 1997). Although the attribution to each of these artists merits consideration, the most plausible candidate remains the painter heretofore known as Giovanni di Francesco da Rovezzano (or del Cervelliera), whose key work is an altarpiece in the Carrand Collection of the Bargello in Florence. However, an examination of archival sources (Takuma Ito, "L’identità di Giovanni di Francesco," Ricerche di storia dell’arte 84 , pp. 51–69) has demonstrated that a confusion has arisen between two artists with closely similar patronymics: Giovanni di Francesco and Giovanni di Franco. Paradoxical as it may sound, the artist heretofore known as Giovanni di Francesco da Rovezzano was the historical Giovanni di Franco, who was born in 1425/26, matriculated in the Compagnia di San Luca in 1448, and was still alive in 1498. It is an anonymous painter christened by Longhi as the Pratovecchio Master who is the historical Giovanni di Francesco del Cervelliera. He was born ca. 1418, collaborated with Filippo Lippi between 1440 and 1442, was inscribed in the painter’s guild in Florence in 1442, and died in 1459. The MMA portrait is thus tentatively ascribed to Giovanni di Franco based on comparison with the figures on the terminals of a painted Crucifix in Broggi. It may date ca. 1445–50.
[Keith Christiansen 2012]
Alexander Casella, London (in 1884; as by Cosimo Tura); Édouard Aynard, Lyons (until d. 1913; his estate sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, December 1–4, 1913, no. 53, as Attributed to Fra Filippo Lippi, for Fr 44,100 to de Ricci for Kleinberger); [Kleinberger, Paris and New York, 1913–23, as by Fra Diamante; sold for $12,000 to Friedsam]; Michael Friedsam, New York (1923–d. 1931)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1884, no. 225 (as by Cosimo Tura, lent by Alexander Casella).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Loan Exhibition of the Arts of the Italian Renaissance," May 7–September 9, 1923, no. 2 (as by Fra Diamante, lent by Michael Friedsam).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Michael Friedsam Collection," November 15, 1932–April 9, 1933, no catalogue.
Stamford, Conn. Stamford Museum and Nature Center. "Renaissance Paintings," May 2–17, 1964, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
Milan. Pinacoteca di Brera. "Fra Carnevale: un artista rinascimentale da Filippo Lippi a Piero della Francesca," October 13, 2004–January 9, 2005, no. 17 (as Cerchia di Paolo Uccello).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master," February 1–May 1, 2005, no. 17.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini," December 21, 2011–March 18, 2012, not in catalogue.
P. Lelarge-Desar. "La collection Édouard Aynard." Revue de l'art ancien et moderne 34 (July–December 1913), p. 392, accepts the attribution to Filippo Lippi in the Aynard sale catalogue.
Bernard Berenson. Letter to Kleinberger. April 18, 1922, attributes it to Fra Diamante.
Bernard Berenson in The Michael Friedsam Collection. [completed 1928], p. 44, tentatively attributes it to Fra Diamante and dates it soon after 1450; calls it "perhaps the earliest example of a head framed in a sort of box".
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 169, lists it as by Fra Diamante.
Bryson Burroughs and Harry B. Wehle. "The Michael Friedsam Collection: Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, section 2 (November 1932), pp. 32–33, no . 51, ill., as attributed to Fra Diamante; date it in the 1440s or early 1450s, and compare it with the Portrait of a Man and Woman at a Casement by Filippo Lippi (MMA 89.15.19).
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 279, tentatively attributes it to the Master of the Carrand Triptych, Giovanni di Francesco.
Jean Lipman. "The Florentine Profile Portrait in the Quattrocento." Art Bulletin 18 (March 1936), pp. 76, 101, fig. 32, as possibly by Fra Diamante; lists it with portraits that date 1450–75.
Georg Pudelko. "Per la datazione delle opere di Fra Filippo Lippi." Rivista d'arte 18 (1936), p. 57 n. 1 (from p. 56), attributes it to a close follower of Filippo Lippi whom he calls "Scolaro di Prato".
F. Mason Perkins. Letter. March 24, 1938, attributes it to a close follower of Filippo Lippi, not necessarily Fra Diamante.
[Carlo Lodovico] R[agghianti]. "Intorno a Filippo Lippi." Critica d'arte 3 (1938), p. XXV, attributes it to Giovanni di Francesco.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 30–31, ill., tentatively attributes it to Fra Diamante and dates it to the middle of the fifteenth century.
Mary Pittaluga. Filippo Lippi. Florence, 1949, pp. 221–22, lists it among works wrongly connected to Filippo Lippi and his close followers.
Edoardo Arslan. Letter. April 21, 1952, considers it a fake.
r[oberto]. l[onghi]. "Quadri italiani di Berlino a Sciaffusa (1951)." Paragone 3 (September 1952), p. 43, attributes it to Giovanni di Francesco and dates it about 1450.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 113–14, ill., attribute it to Giovanni di Francesco, comparing it to his triptych in the Carrand collection (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence); date it late 1440s and note the influence of Filippo Lippi, Domenico Veneziano, and Paolo Uccello.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 88, 529, 607, attribute it to Giovanni di Francesco.
Burton B. Fredericksen. Giovanni di Francesco and the Master of Pratovecchio. [Malibu], 1974, p. 29, no. 1, p. 37 n. 150, rejects the attribution to Giovanni di Francesco.
John Pope-Hennessy and Keith Christiansen. "Secular Painting in 15th-Century Tuscany: Birth Trays, Cassone Panels, and Portraits." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 38 (Summer 1980), pp. 56, 59, fig. 49 (color), attribute it to an artist they call the Prato Master, who was apparently trained in the workshop of Uccello and who painted a fresco cycle in the chapel of the Assumption in the cathedral of Prato; date it about 1443–45.
Dieter Jansen. "Fra Filippo Lippis Doppelbildnis im New Yorker Metropolitan Museum." Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 48/49 (1987–88), pp. 97–98, 118 n. 6, fig. 2, tentatively attributes it to the circle of Paolo Uccello and dates it about 1440.
Paul Joannides. "A Portrait by Fra Carnevale." Source: Notes in the History of Art 8 (Spring 1989), pp. 7–10, fig. 1, rejects the attribution to Giovanni di Franceso and assigns it to the Master of the Barberini Panels, Fra Carnevale, comparing it with the head of the Virgin in the Presentation of the Virgin in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Daniele Benati. "Il 'Maestro delle tavole Barberini': un ritratto." Nuovi studi 1 (1996), p. 27 n. 4, rejects the attribution to Fra Carnevale and considers Giovanni di Francesco the more likely author.
Miklós Boskovits. "Studi sul ritratto fiorentino quattrocentesco—I." Arte cristiana 85 (July–August 1997), pp. 255, 261 n. 5, states that Carlo Volpe attributed it to Fra Carnevale during a conversation in about 1970; dates it toward the middle of the fifteenth century.
Keith Christiansen inFrom Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master. Ed. Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2005, pp. 178–79, no. 17, ill. (color) [Italian ed., "Fra Carnevale: un artista rinascimentale da Filippo Lippi a Piero della Francesca," Milan, 2004, pp. 178–79, no. 17, ill.], comments that both the format and the attribution are enigmatic and unsettled; finds this work closest to Uccello, but also with links to Filippo Lippi, and notes that the sitter's ear is almost identical to those of cherubs in the Assumption of the Virgin (San Giovanni Evangelista, Pratovecchio) by the Pratovecchio Master.
Emanuela Daffra inFrom Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master. Ed. Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2005, pp. 30–31 [Italian ed., "Fra Carnevale: un artista rinascimentale da Filippo Lippi a Piero della Francesca," Milan, 2004, p. 30], rejects Joannides' [see Ref. 1989] attribution to Fra Carnevale.
Andrea De Marchi inFrom Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master. Ed. Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2005, p. 94 n. 72 [Italian ed., "Fra Carnevale: un artista rinascimentale da Filippo Lippi a Piero della Francesca," Milan, 2004, p. 94 n. 75], expresses "strong reservations about the authenticity of" this painting.