Rendering a telling gaze

A face is a bit like a landscape by which we can gauge the changes of the weather. Will we encounter storms or sunshine, a frost or a thaw? It's all there on the surface if we look, fluctuating with the tides of thought.

This early Renaissance portrait gives us a lovely face, soft, graceful and alert. Yet she's also watchful. Possibly even suspicious, as though she might not wish her portrait painted at all. The artist's inevitably intent stare seems to be endured far more than enjoyed.

By the presence of a dog (the traditional symbol for fidelity, implying betrothal or marriage intentions) and the comely, young sitter herself, we're given significant signs that this might well be a marriage portrait, prepared for a prospective husband, miles, even countries away from view. There was simply no other means by which a promising husband might be initially lured -- other than the primary lure of money and power. For, of course, such transactions only took place with the moneyed and the powerful. Portraits were a luxury, albeit a necessary one at times.

So a great deal might have depended upon this portrait, which might account for the guarded, even slightly arrogant gaze. She's young, after all, and although she may be the daughter of an important Italian family, she still has to find some shield for protection, and arrogance is often the nearest at hand. Besides, as a woman she was a salable commodity, a ladder by which her family's prosperity might reach higher levels. She couldn't possibly not have known this, but she was bound to have had some qualms, for it was her future at risk.

How she presented herself to begin with could affect the shape of her life in the future. So much was at stake for one so young, and she was doing her best. Adorned in the raiment of a well-bred maiden of the late fifteenth century, she makes a specific appeal to the eye. The square necked scarlet bodice is bordered in black velvet and trimmed with green bows, and the detachable sleeves are turquoise and brown stripes.

In overall appearance, she's like the Leonardo portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, known as the ''Lady With an Ermine,'' dating from about the same period. But the difference in countenance is striking. Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of the mighty Lodovico Sforza, appears provocative, assured and subtly sensuous; the ''Young Woman With a Dog'' appears to be none of these things. Indeed she seems pensive, vaguely vulnerable and even a bit reluctant to comply. One can't help recalling Shakespeare's ill-fated Juliet or his defiantly unwilling Kate.

Who exactly she was we don't know, although she's thought to be a member of the Bentivoglio family, a close relation of the Gonzagas of Mantua.

As to who actually painted her, we're even more uncertain. The painting has been attributed to Lorenzo Costa, who was known to have worked for the Bentivoglio family in Bologna before they were driven out by Pope Julius II. Later he attached himself to the Mantua court of Isabella d'Este (by marriage a Gonzaga), for Costa, like all artists of his time, needed a patron, and a patron with a court was most desirable. The demands on a court artist could vary from portraits to sacred frescoes, from costumes to stage sets, dependent of course on the artist's own ability.

Before the Renaissance, an artist had a social position no better than a shoemaker. But with the Renaissance, his position advanced, along with the techniques of his craft and the realization of his individual dignity. He was now a man of learning, trained to enrich the minds of those he served. New respect and even a degree of power came his way. As he now had to know about mathematical proportions, he was thought to be a thinker, seeking laws. Indeed, he was part of the larger aesthetic movement in which man sought to glorify God without belittling man. Which meant, in effect, that man was now honored and observed for himself. But the more perfect the form of man, the more perfectly it echoed the form and harmony of God.

Perhaps Costa was not a great innovator in the early Renaissance, but he could not help getting caught up in the new wave of thought. And it shows in this portrait. We see neither a saint, an angel nor a symbol of feminine virtue, as the medieval artists would have drawn. Instead we see an individual Italian with her own specific feelings. Costa also employed the latest devices of modeling, in which strong lighting and soft shadows effectively sculpted the sitter so that she appears substantially three-dimensional. But he also applied the Netherlandish technique of sharp observation. A realistic detail like the loose strands of hair, wispy on the side of her face, shows Costa's conscious mastery over this practice.

When one considers the medieval concepts of art, in particular its spatial vagueness and its avoidance of secular individuality, one notices how far this portrait has traveled. Yet there is nevertheless a distinct difference between this portrait and the portraits of the high Renaissance. It's as though, like Matthew Arnold's Oxford, it still speaks ''with the last enchantments of the Middle Ages.'' A kind of decorative modesty continues to prevail. The lofty, grand heroism of the high Renaissance is yet to come.

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