The enigma of authenticity - Raphael's Lady with a Unicorn

February 15, 2012

When studying Raphael's catalogue of paintings, what quickly becomes apparent is the general discord between scholars over a significant number of pieces. The following case study presents an example of a work that is traditionally ascribed to Raphael - the grounds of which seem based on a history of critical speculation rather than any conclusive historical, stylistic or technical evidence. The aim of this post is to highlight questions that must be asked when reviewing a statement confidently linking a work to an artist. The review guidelines in this instance will be the same as outlined in previous examples.

I would like to clarify that I have no personal inclination towards either of the suggested authors of this charming work. Although in an unfinished state - it still holds a magical allure common to many Renaissance portraits. My only hope in this instance is to impart a sense of the unknown for the attribution of this painting, rather than enforcing the (false) belief that its link to Raphael is firmly established.

Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn
Galleria Borghese, Rome, inv. 371
Dated  c.1505-6
65 x 51 cm
Wood, transferred to canvas
Listed by custodian gallery as an autograph work by Raphael
Contested by Morelli (Ridolfo Ghirlandaio) ; A. Venturi (Ridolfo Ghirlandaio) ; Berenson (Granacci), Freedberg, (Ridolfo Ghirlandaio); Dussler (?Ridolfo Ghirlandaio)

Prior to 1682 Unknown from documentary sources

1682 Noted in the estate inventory of Olimpia Aldobrandini, wife of Paulo Borghese (married 1640).

This entry states,
Un quadro in tavola con una donna a sedere con Alicorno in braccio alto palmi uno e mezzo in circa con cornice di mano incerta.

A painting on wood of a seated woman with a unicorn in her arms measuring approximately one and a half palmi in height with a frame by an unknown author.
It should noted the palmo (pl. palmi) was a unit of measurement. Its exact dimension varied across regions and eras. In this instance, for the Borghese inventory, it is implied a palmo romano would have been used, which according to sources is approximated at 22.3 centimetres. As the inventory report of the measurement states an approximation, a mathematical extrapolation of these dimensions would only amplify these inaccuracies.

Attribution history
This famous piece, now increasingly identified as a Raphael autograph work was for a long time unattributed, even in the Borghese inventory of 1682 which describes the author as uncertain. The Florentine style of the portrait has resulted in published attributions to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, Andrea del Sarto and Granacci among others. Ridolfo Longhi was the first to publish a Raphael attribution in 1927, producing a reconstructive sketch having recognised that significant degree of overpainting that had occurred. (see condition) Recent catalogues hence grant the piece to Raphael, primarily through the design of the piece and the execution of the facial features. Joannides submits the work was completed by another hand.

The identity of the sitter can not be confirmed, although a number of theories have been presented, equally varying with the opinions on authorship. X-ray analysis and infrared photography identifies underdrawing suggesting the unicorn was originally a dog. Whether the original artist painted the unicorn or that this feature was transformed by another hand is a matter of debate. From an iconographic perspective, either interpretation is fitting for the subject of a bridal portrait - a dog indicating loyalty, a unicorn chastity.

Extensive overpainting was noted to have occurred in the seventeenth century, obscuring the unicorn entirely and replacing it with a robe and a wheel - to hence convert the image to one depicting Saint Catherine of Alexandria. A restoration attempt in 1936 is now regarded as having a detrimental effect to the picture, also including a transfer to canvas from the original wooden support. A repair was undertaken in 1959-60 to undo the damage from the previous restoration.

From Meyer zur Capellen's report of the visible light examination,

Today, the painted surface consists of major areas of repair and overpainting and craquelures largely covered by a thin paint layer. The landscape is completely ruined, and the lady's shoulders, especially the contours down to the puffed sleeves, are seriously damaged and overpainted.  

He adds the face is the least affected area, with this part of the painting bearing the most Raphaelesque characteristics.

Related drawing
Often quoted as a related design is the Louvre drawing believed to be made after the Mona Lisa. It can not be directly cited as a preparatory item for this or any of the Florentine style portraits, though it does merit mention as an exploration of the characteristic 3/4 turned pose, seen notably in the portraits of Maddelena Doni, Costanza Fregoso and La Muta.

Panel and pigment characteristics
Originally on panel, transferred to canvas in the 1936 restoration attempt. The medium is noted as oils, though extensive retouching and restoration has been performed on this piece. The species of the original wood layer, and chemical nature of the pigments and ground substances are not reported in the catalogue materials.  Infrared photographs dated from the 1959-60 repair are noted by Meyer zur Capellen, but not illustrated - this report primarily describing the unicorn as originally being a dog with some re-working of the facial features. The original depiction of the dog can also be made out from an X-radiograph published by Shearman in 1970 (pictured below)

The onus of reporting
The level of information summarised in this post is only available in volumes catering to specialists with a deeper interest in Raphael's catalogue of works. Outside of these publications - it seems the world is content to accept this piece as "an iconic masterpiece by Raphael" - an attribution which has only existed since 1927, and is still doubted. Between March and May 2011, this piece was sent to Moscow as part of a cultural exchange between Italy and Russia, as the video below summarises (via Russia Today).  It would have seemed less momentous if the painting was presented in its true light.

Bon Valsassina in Bernini et al.  Raphael invenit : stampe da Raffaello nelle collezioni dell'Istituto nazionale per la grafica : catalogo. Edizione Quasar. 1985

Dussler, L. Raphael - A critical catalogue of his pictures, wall-paintings and tapestries. 1966. Phaidon. Online at Raffael Projekt  p.64 link Provides a full bibliographic summary of attribution history

Frommel, CL.  Die Römische Palastbau der Hochrenaissance. Römische Forschungen der Bibliotheca Hertziana XXI. 1973. i.79. (table of measurements)  - also see O'Brien for online resource

Italian Master on display in Moscow. Russia Today website. March 21 2011. Accessed February 2012. link

Joannides, P. The Drawings of Raphael with a Complete Catalogue. 1983. Univesity of California Press. No. 175. pp.62-63

Meyer zur Capellen, J. (Trans. Polter, S). Raphael  - The Paintings. Vol. 1. Arcos Verlag. 2001. pp. 290-293

Shearman, J. Raphael at the Court of Urbino. The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 112, No. 803, Italian Sixteenth-Century Art outside Venice (Feb., 1970), pp.72-78 link

O'Brien, G. Table of the length of the oncia, soldo or pollice in the Italian peninsula arranged according to location. Accessed Jan 2012. link

Many thanks to Dr. Edward Goldberg for the translation of the Aldobrandini inventory entry and explanation of the palmo as a unit of measurement, and to Agnes Crawford for verifying the attribution listed by the Borghese in Rome (both catalogue and display). 

This post is dedicated to the wonderful Annina Jokinen from Luminarium and Jacqueline Roe from The Renaissance Girl for their enthusiastic assistance and kind sharing of information via twitter.


Alberti's Window said...

That news clip is disheartening and confusing. I don't get what the reporter means about how the woman originally was depicted "without a cloak." What is supposed to constitute a "cloak" in this painting (that we see today)? Her sleeves?

Have you read any more commentary on this "cloak" topic? I wonder where she is getting this information...

Unknown said...

Hi M! Thanks for the comments.

As mentioned the inclusion of the wheel (as an attribute of St Catherine) and overpainting of the dog/unicorn was reported as a robe (or cloak) in the early restoration report - I wish I had a picture of what it used to look like - it was hard enough to find that XRay!

I'm less fussed about the reporting of restoration changes - I'm more irked when reporters/authors say "painted by Raphael"... they don't know that!

Looking at that image, maybe it's just my eyes but the ears of the dog don't seem to have been adequately masked by whoever painted over them/restored it.

Kind Regards

Edward Goldberg said...

Objectivity is not my usual mode but I am going to cop a Niyazi Plea on this one! The Lady with the Unicorn is a very tough call, especially in its present condition. You brightened my day, however, with that demented video — featuring the banal stock footage of Rome, the Chocolate Soldier with the facial hair and His Excellency the Ambassador pronouncing “Medici” in French (Sil-vuh of the Meh-deh-seize). Anyway, many thanks for your timely shout, “Maybe the Emperor has clothes! Maybe he doesn’t! Let’s look at the methodology!”

Unknown said...

Hello Ed - many thanks for the comment - the methodology is the key here. There is an excessive emphasis on consensus in this instance.

To be totally objective about it, there is less going for this piece in terms of documentary and certain stylistic indicators than others which have been rejected from the Raphael pantheon - such as the Hampton Court 'self portrait' - now languishing as a follower piece.

The deeper one wades into the Raphael literature, the more speculation is encountered - with commentators seemingly unable to remain neutral or say "there is insufficent evidence" and leaving it at that.


Curiosity said...

I am curious to who the woman is in this painting. Is it truly St. Catherine of Alexandria?
When I see other portraits of her, she has dark hair.

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