WE have all seen people on the street or in school who remind us of a friend or relative we know very well. Although this painting is over 450 years old, the young lady reminds me of a very good friend. They each have large, calm, dark eyes; smooth pale skin in an oval face. Of course, I don't think I would mistake one for the other should this young lady turn up in jeans and a T-shirt, or Elaine in a magnificent red velvet dress with huge puffed sleeves. The portraitist, Bartolomeo Veneto, painted in Venice in the first half of the 16th century, and while not much is known about him he was probably a very successful artist because he painted people and their clothing very carefully. Venice at the time was a very wealthy city and its chief citizens were very proud of their riches and the variety and quality of the cloth they could afford. Italy was then divided into small city states, each with their own government. Venice gained its status by trading and its ships were famous. So the artist emphasized the exact texture of the velvet sleeves and the heavy drapery behind her. He was skillful in the use of very thin applications of oil paints, called glazing, which makes the painting of the face and hair so attractive.
And we can examine every stitch of the embroidery on the woman's blouse and can count the beads of her amber necklace, of which every tenth bead is larger than the rest and carved in a spiral pattern. (This is another thing my friend, Elaine, and this unknown lady have in common; they both enjoy wearing beautiful clothing with harmonizing jewelry.) She is wearing fine leather gloves with turned-over cuffs. Covering her hands keeps the composition simple by having only one focus, the lit area of head and blouse. Perhaps, too, supple leather was a new fashion item, although gloves are known to have been used as early as the 11th century and, of course, men in armor wore gauntlets. But the most famous Venetian painter, Titian, features elegant gloves in more than one of his portraits.
But what about her strange headgear? It reminds one of the very large, padded turbans which were popular in Venice a century before, but after looking at this painting many times, I came to a startling conclusion - that it is hair not hat! The pattern of little rolls seems to be her auburn hair drawn through a stiffened framework. If one looks at her hairline to the right of the two long corkscrew curls above the beautifully painted pearl eardrop, one can see the hair being pulled into the whatever-they-called-it. (Elaine's hair is dark and simply pulled back into a knot.)
The lady's elaborately handsome clothing may have been something like dressing up for an important date because I think this may be an ``engagement portrait.'' Among the aristocracy and wealthy classes, the custom was to arrange marriages for their children by exchanging portraits. If we look closely, we can see that our painstaking artist recorded that the embroidery on her blouse forms a heart-shaped pattern. So, let us hope that this painting resulted in a happy marriage.
The next time you go to an art museum, don't just pass the portraits - look to see if you can find someone who looks like a friend.