European Art: 14th-16th Centuries

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Bust Portrait of a Courtesan, c. 1509

Zorzo da Castelfranco called Giorgione

Italian, 1477/78-1510
Oil on panel, transferred to canvas
12-1/2 x 9-3/8 in. (31.8 x 23.8 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation
F.1965.1.028.P
© 2012 The Norton Simon Foundation

Not on view

The subject of this intriguing painting remains unclear. The informal arrangement of the figure’s clothing, the delicate, floral head wreath and jeweled element have led to her designation as a courtesan or ‘bella,’ a genre of idealized, female busts invented by the innovative painter known as Giorgione. Her likeness should not be viewed as a portrait in the real sense because Giorgione, as well as Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, developed variations on the close-up, half-length personification of female beauty. Such sensuous portrayals were meant to be affective, and expressive of a thought or a mood. They correspond to similar preoccupations in the literary world where the celebration of female beauty in sonnets was highly fashionable.

Overall, the poetic mood, suggestion of movement, and interest in ‘morbido,’ (softness), were characteristics shared by both Giorgione and the young Titian at this moment in their careers. In fact, since the mid-19th century, some Venetian painting specialists have suggested Titian as the author. Head of a Venetian Girl, which has an illustrious pedigree, was included in the landmark “Art Treasures of Great Britain” held in Manchester, England in 1857. One of the largest exhibitions ever mounted, it greatly influenced the presentation of objects in public collections according to period and national schools.

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