Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portait of Margherita of Savoy (1589-1655) c.1605

Federico Zuccaro (1542-1609)

Portait of Margherita of Savoy (1589-1655), Federico Zuccaro
Oil on canvas
17th Century
47 ¼ x 39 inches, 120 x 99.1 cm
Possibly Livio Odescalchi, Duca di Bracciano (.d.1713); Thence by descent to Princess Marie de la Paix Odescalchi, later Countess Kupstein, where recorded at the Palazzo Odescalchi; By whom given to Paul Janson, Brussels in 1903; Thence by descent; Christies 7th December 2006, as ‘Circle of Sofonisba Anguissola’.
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This important and hitherto unpublished portrait has been recently recognised as a portrait of Margherita of Savoy by the Italian artist Federico Zuccaro. The sitter has been identified independently by Diana Scarisbrick and Daniele Sanguineti through close comparison of other, slightly later portraits by Pourbus. Margherita of Savoy married Francesco Gonzaga, son of the 4th Duke of Mantua, in 1608. The portrait is a lavish, and alluring, picture of aristocratic proposition. Margherita is shown here at about the age of sixteen, with a female spaniel on her right, a sign of both fidelity and fertility, while her lavish jewellery contains tiny, but noticeable, erotic enamel figures.

Professor Francesco Petrucci of the Palazzo Chigi di Ariccia will publish the picture in his forthcoming book ‘Roman Portraiture in the XVIIth Century’. He states that Zuccari was “the only Italian artist capable of creating such a masterpiece” at this period, and that the picture’s technique of “a natural sensitivity, together with a certain baroque influence through its soft and delicate characterization, and the pink of the complexion” are also attributes of the artist. Comparison with Zuccaro’s portrait drawings reveals clear similarities in the structure of his faces, particularly in the construction of the eyes, which are alert and boldly drawn, and display a psychological intensity that can also be seen in the present portrait. We are grateful to James Mundy, author of ‘Italian Master Drawings by the Zuccari’ [exhibition catalogue, Milwaukee Art Museum, 1989], for his suggestion that a small head study drawing by Zuccaro [Christies London 11 December 1979, lot 7] may be a preparatory sketch of the same sitter, which was, in the final painted portrait, worked up into a more regal bearing.

The most compelling indicator, beyond the stylistic and technical similarities to Zuccaro’s work, is the surviving documentary evidence, such as the artist’s own diary, “Il Passaggio per l’ltalia, con la dimora di Parma del sig. cavaliere Federico Zuccaro” (first published Bologna 1608). In July 1605 Zuccaro traveled to Savoy, at the time of the wedding negotiations for the Savoy-Gonzaga marriage. According to his correspondence with Francesco Gonzaga, the Duke of Savoy invited Zuccaro to Turin precisely to paint both his daughters while they were at marriageable age. The lustrous potency of the present picture would have advertised the Duke’s daughter to great effect. Zuccaro himself, when writing to the Duke of Mantua praising Margherita’s physical features, noted her “clear face, and bright skin … not dark, as the portraits that have been seen up to now show …”, characteristics that can be seen in the present portrait.

Federico Zuccaro was, after the death of Titian in 1576, regarded as the most influential painter in Europe. He was certainly the most famous of that generation of artists who, rather unfortunately, had to succeed, and were expected to exceed, the achievements of such giants as Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. Zuccaro was one of the few artists able to take painting forward in the later sixteenth century, and into the Baroque. His work is less well known today than it perhaps should be, chiefly because the frescoes that make up the majority of his output cannot be conveniently seen, or displayed in museums. Only a handful of canvas works, such as the present example, survive.

Zuccaro began his career in Rome with his brother Taddeo, with whom he worked on mainly religious scenes, most notably at the Vatican. By the 1560s and 70s demand for his work was so great that he became one of the most widely traveled artists of the sixteenth century. His first major artistic journey was a trip to Lombardy with Andrea Palladio, followed by work across Italy, including at Florence for the Medicis, Venice, Orvieto, Lucca and Rome again for Pope Gregory XIII. He also traveled as far as England (of which more below), Antwerp, where he is believed to have designed tapestries, and Madrid, where was commissioned by Philip II. Towards the end of his career, Zuccaro was recognised as one of Italy’s great artistic talents; he was made a citizen of Rome in 1591 by decree, and two years later was named ‘principe’ of the Accademia di San Luca.

Zuccaro’s artistic style evolved throughout his career in response to the changing cultural and political environment. His early Mannerist style, though successful, came to be criticized by some, most notably in Rome, from where he was expelled in 1581 after making satirical sketches of his detractors. However, Zuccaro increasingly forsook the earlier, prevalent Mannerist style characterized by its intentional artifice, distorted proportions and clashing colours. Here, the counter-reformation played a key role, particularly after the Council of Trent (1543-63), for its impact on art led to what some called a ‘Counter-Maniera’ style. In a bid to thwart Protestantism, art was to be directed towards consciously propagandist works heavy with religious content, expressed with a new degree of clarity and realism. Zuccaro embraced this new movement, and thus, along with other artists of the period, was responsible for gently escorting Mannerism to its death.

Portraits by Zuccaro are extremely rare, and very few such works survive. This is at once surprising and ironic; surprising because Zuccaro was patronised by so many European rulers, and ironic because, in England at least, dozens of late-sixteenth century English portraits were erroneously called ‘Zuccaro’ for centuries, particularly those of Queen Elizabeth I. This stemmed, in part, from the knowledge that Zuccaro had traveled to England in 1575 specifically to paint the Queen – but which portrait he had painted was uncertain, and there has been much speculation about which, if any, of Zuccaro’s English works can be identified.

It is worth noting that the discovery of the present work may now allow us to identify one of Zuccaro’s portrait of Elizabeth. In 1987 what is arguably the finest portrait of Elizabeth I, the so-called ‘Darnley’ portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, London, was attributed by Sir Roy Strong to Federico Zuccaro. His suggestion was based on a series of important coincidences, in addition to its European manner. First, the Darnley portrait can be dated closely to c.1575, the date of Zuccaro’s visit. Secondly, Elizabeth is known to have referred to Italian artists as the ‘best’, and so must presumably have had some experience of sitting to an Italian. And most importantly, the Darnley portrait’s dominance over Elizabeth’s subsequent portraits suggests that it was not only highly rated by Elizabeth and her advisers, but also ordained as the best official likeness.

However, as Strong pointed out in 1987, the attribution of the Darnley portrait to Zuccaro was tenuous, because “there are no known oil portraits by him with which to make any comparison” . However, the identification of Margherita of Savoy now allows the comparison to be made. Subsequent analysis and research has raised the strong possibility that the ‘Darnley’ portrait is indeed the missing portrait by Zuccaro. There are clear stylistic similarities with the present picture, such as the colour and handling of the costume, which is rendered with extraordinary skill and clarity. The present portrait of Margherita of Savoy, therefore, will be crucial in allowing a fuller understanding of the portraiture of one Europe’s great artistic figures.

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