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The Identification of Caterina Sforza in Renaissance Paintings through Symbolism

(in: Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: Identificare Caterina Sforza nei dipinti del Rinascimento attraverso il simbolismo, pag. 77 - 85, in: Caterina Sforza – 500° Anniversario Della Morte (28 Maggio 1509), Atti del Convegno di studi e della Tavola rotonda internationale, Forlì, 16 maggio 2009 a cura di Silvia Arfelli, Gilberto Giorgetti)

On 28th May 2009 we commemorated the 500th anniversary of the death of one of the most famous women of the Italian Renaissance, Caterina Sforza (1463-1509), Countess of Forlì and Imola (Fig. 1). By her contemporaries she was regarded as one of the most beautiful, most graceful, bravest and smartest women of the world. She was the first, albeit illegitimate daughter of the Milanese Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza († 1476). Thanks to the great number of still existing written records1 we are very well informed about her life, her four marriages and her eight children. She was married to Girolamo Riario (1443-1488), Giacomo Feo (1468-1495), Giovanni de' Medici (1467-1498), and Ottaviano Manfredi (1472-1499), and gave birth to her daughter Bianca (1478-after 1522) and her sons Ottaviano (1479-1523), Cesare (1480-1518), Giovanni Livio (1484-1496), Galeazzo (1485-1557), Francesco Sforzino (1487-after 1509), Carlo (1489-after 1509), and Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (1498-1526).

Traditionally the members of the high nobility of the Renaissance were almost always portrayed with their specific symbols and colours and/or the coats of arms of their dynasties or families. This was done in portrait paintings, on altarpieces, in mythological scenes and on frescoes. Because of this we are able to identify Caterina Sforza in Renaissance paintings and hence know what she looked like. Even today we have access to hundreds of portraits of this remarkable woman. Most of them were produced in the workshop of the Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli (1445/47-1510), either by the master himself or by his many assistants. Besides her grandmother, the Milanese Duchess Bianca Maria Visconti (1425-1468), and her cousin and sister-in-law, the Milanese Duchess Isabella of Aragon (1470-1524), Caterina Sforza is one of the most depicted women of the Renaissance. The most famous portraits of her can be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The tradition of decorating paintings and frescoes of the Renaissance with the specific symbols and colours of the depicted permits the identification of family members of the Visconti and Sforza, the Aragonese, the Medici, the Hapsburgs, the Wettins, the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the French and Burgundian Valois, the Bourbons, the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal, the French Duchy of Brittany, the Montefeltro, the d'Este, and the Gonzaga.

This custom had been introduced in the second half of the 13th century by the ancestors of Caterina Sforza, the Visconti, who were the Lords and later the Dukes of Milan2. The tradition disappeared in the second half of the 16th century when Protestantism became established. Now reading and writing was taught even in the remotest villages enabling every Christian to read the texts of the Bible for him/herself. The success of the written word forced symbolism to take a back seat. It disappeared from portrait paintings and so did the possibility of identifying the sitter. Eventually it became entirely forgotten.

Written remarks on paintings of the Renaissance with regard to the depicted person should be treated with caution. All of them were added later, at the earliest in the 17th century, but most of them in the 19th century, usually by the owners or curators of those paintings. It is therefore hardly a surprise that every second written attribution has been found to be wrong3. The only certain way of identifying the sitter in a portrait painting or in a fresco of the Renaissance is to recognise the coat of arms, the symbols and the colours of the depicted gentleman or lady. This is an essential condition, but not necessarily sufficient for a positive identification. Additional expert knowledge in the following areas may be required:

  1. History of the Renaissance, in the areas of politics, tradition, customs, conventions and laws
  2. History of fashion: dress styles, accessories, jewellery, hair styles. All these recur after some time, however, always with some small differences which are of eminent importance for the correct dating of a painting.
  3. Dynasties of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, their family trees, their individual members, their coats of arms, colours, emblems and symbols.
  4. The Saints of Christianity, their biographies and their specific symbols.
  5. The gods, goddesses and heroes of the Greek-Roman mythology, their biographies and their specific symbols.

There are many identification portraits of Caterina Sforza, which allow us to become acquainted with her facial features. Eventually this enables us to recognise her in other paintings where she is depicted merely as a member of the Sforza dynasty or even without any symbols of her family.

The famous painting “Pallas and the Centaur” (Fig. 2) is an identification portrait. The dress of the Goddess Pallas has been decorated with four different symbols which allow a positive identification with absolute certainty. On this dress we find 1) groups of three interconnected diamond rings, 2) a chain of interconnected diamond rings (Fig. 2a), 3) individual diamond rings of various sizes and 4) groups of four interconnected diamond rings. The sign of the three interconnected diamond rings, representing the friendship of the Visconti and Sforza with the Borromeo, and the chain of interconnected diamond rings are symbols of the Milanese dynasty of the Sforza. Both were frequently used by the Milanese Duke Francesco Sforza († 1466) and his wife Bianca Maria Visconti, as well as by their son Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza († 1476). They were the grandparents and the father of Caterina Sforza. The chain of interconnected diamond rings can be found in portrait paintings and manuscripts of the Sforza. Furthermore it is used as a wall and ceiling decoration in the Chapel of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. This chapel is dedicated to the extraordinary friendship between the Medici and the Sforza. Here other important symbols of the Visconti-Sforza, like the rayed sun and the shell, can be found, too. The single diamond ring on the dress of the Goddess Pallas by contrast is a symbol of the Medici. This means that the depicted woman is connected to the house of the Sforza as well as to the house of the Medici. Hence she could be a female member of the dynasty of the Sforza who married into the house of the Medici or a female member of the dynasty of the Medici who married into the house of the Sforza.

A closer look at the family trees of the Sforza and the Medici shows that no female member of the Medici ever married into the house of the Sforza, whereas one female member of the Sforza married a Medici, and this was Caterina Sforza. The painter of the masterpiece “Pallas and the Centaur” even created a new symbol on the occasion of Caterina Sforza marrying a Medici: four interconnected diamond rings resulting from the Sforza symbol of three diamond rings plus the Medici symbol of the single diamond ring. Hence, should we encounter this new symbol on some other portrait painting or altarpiece or mythological scene of the Renaissance, we would know straight away that the depicted can only be Caterina Sforza. As the representation of a person in a painting or on a fresco depends on the ability of the painter and his style, it is possible to attribute such a painting to a specific painter. We can conclude that “Pallas and the Centaur” was not painted by Sandro Botticelli, because the way Caterina Sforza has been depicted in it was not his style4. The painter was one of Botticelli's assistants who also gave his master's facial features to the Centaur. Also, we now can date the painting more closely. Caterina Sforza married Giovanni de' Medici in late 1496 at the earliest, possibly in 1497. Consequently the painting could not have been produced before 1496.

Another identification portrait of Caterina Sforza (Fig. 3) can be found in the Pinacoteca Civica in Forlì. The red ribbon with the loose knot around her waist is an important symbol of her Visconti ancestors and it was very popular with the Sforza. The symbol of the knot was created by Galeazzo I Visconti (1277-1328), by which he can be easily identified on Italian altarpieces and frescoes from the late 13th century and first half of the 14th century5. The loose knot was tied from a thin rope (Fig. 4) or a wide scarf. As Galeazzo I Visconti was one of the mightiest and most admired members of his dynasty, his successors liked to advertise their relationship with him by using his symbol, sometimes with minor variations. This is true for the Milanese Duke Filippo Maria Visconti († 1447) (Fig. 5) and his daughter Bianca Maria Visconti (Fig. 6), as well as for their successors, the Sforza. The latter used the symbol of the loose knot not only around the waist, but also on the upper part of the sleeves, as decoration on dresses and doublets in the chest area and on headdresses (Fig. 7). Caterina Sforza has often been depicted with this important Sforza symbol on coins, where the loose knot is part of her hairstyle (Fig. 8). In her portrait in the Pinacoteca Civica in Forlì she has been depicted not only with this Visconti symbol but also with the symbol of her first husband Girolamo Riario, the rose, which she holds in her right hand6. The rose of the Riario is usually coloured pink, but can occasionally be displayed in white and/or in red which are the Visconti colours.

Apart from the rose of the Riario there are orange flowers7 (not jasmine flowers!, Fig. 9) in the earthen pot in front of Caterina Sforza on a table with a red cloth. Orange flowers were used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as a symbol for fertility. Caterina Sforza proved to be very fertile in her marriage to Girolamo Riario. She gave birth to at least two daughters and five sons8. Furthermore on this portrait painting we find the citadel of Forlì in the background on the left. This identification portrait painting of Caterina Sforza in which she can be identified with absolute certainty through the Visconti-symbol of the loose knot and the Riario-symbol of the rose, is the official portrait of the new regent of Forlì. It was made by Leonardo da Vinci in 14899. It is probably based on a drawing of Caterina Sforza which Leonardo da Vinci made as the court painter of the Sforza in 1487, when the Countess of Forlì and Imola visited her home town of Milan and her family from early April to late May after having been away for ten years.

Incidentally, there are very many identification portraits of Caterina Sforza where she has been depicted with the loose Visconti-knot and/or the rose of the Riario (Fig. 10 and Fig. 11). The Florentine painter Pietro Perugino († 1523) pictured her with the rose of the Riario on the altarpiece “The Virgin with Child and two Saints and two Angels” (Fig. 12). This can be considered another identification portrait in which Caterina Sforza is shown five times: twice as an angel (in the background) and also as the three main female saints of the Sforza, the Virgin with the Child (in the centre), Saint Catherine of Alexandria (on the right) with her specific symbols of the palm branch and the book, and finally Saint Mary Magdalene (on the left) with her specific symbol of the jar of ointment in her right hand. The rose in the left hand of Saint Mary Magdalene is not a symbol of this Saint but the personal symbol of Caterina Sforza.

The following identification portrait of her shows her again with the rose of the Riario on her lap (Fig. 13). Here she is depicted as the mythological ancestress of the Visconti-Sforza, the Roman Goddess Venus10. In the 15th and first half of the 16th century only a female member of the Visconti-Sforza family was entitled to be depicted as the Roman Goddess Venus (Fig. 14). Also, in one of her most famous portrait paintings “The Birth of Venus” – another identification portrait – Caterina Sforza was immortalised as the mythological ancestress of her dynasty (Fig. 15). The painter Sandro Botticelli added the Sforza symbol of the shell and the Riario symbol of the rose; several of the latter appear to be carried by the wind at her right side. The Sforza symbol of the large shell can be found not only on paintings (Fig. 16) and frescoes of this dynasty, but also on its buildings, e.g. the magnificent Certosa di Pavia. Here, in addition to the external walls, the frescoes inside the church, including the pews, were heavily decorated with it. As a member of the Sforza family, Caterina was very often depicted with the Sforza shell (Fig. 17 and Fig. 18).

On the basis of her many identification portraits, of which only a small selection can be shown here, it is possible to memorise Caterina Sforza's facial features. This enables us to recognise this extraordinary woman in paintings, altarpieces, mythological scenes and frescoes, even when she has not been depicted with her specific symbols or the symbols of her family, as you can see on the following two examples: Fig. 19 and Fig. 20.

Footnotes:

  1. Pier Desiderio Pasolini: Catherine Sforza. London 1898 and Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: Die Sforza II: Caterina Sforza – Tochter einer Krieger-Dynastie. Norderstedt 2008
  2. Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: Die Sforza I: Bianca Maria Visconti – Die Stammmutter der Sforza. Norderstedt 20083
  3. Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: „Mona Lisa“ und andere Fehler – Eine Neubewertung der Kunstgeschichte der Renaissance. (in preparation)
  4. Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: „Mona Lisa“ und andere Fehler – Eine Neubewertung der Kunstgeschichte der Renaissance. (in preparation)
  5. Maike Vogt-Lüerssen: Die Sforza I: Bianca Maria Visconti – Die Stammmutter der Sforza. Norderstedt 20083
  6. Pier Desiderio Pasolini: Catherine Sforza. London 1898
  7. The orange flowers belong to the genus Citrus and the family of Rutaceae. The flowers are solitary and usually have five free white petals. The buds are white. Jasmine belongs to the genus Jasminum and the family of Oleaceae. The flowers of this genus have between four and sixteen white petals and very often have reddish buds. They are not solitary but occur in panicles and racemes.
  8. One daughter, born in November 1481, died only a few days after her birth.
  9. Here, Caterina Sforza has been depicted in the style of Leonardo da Vinci. The two columns in the background became distinctive of the works of Leonardo and his workshop from 1489.
  10. The Visconti viewed Anchises and Aeneas as their mythological ancestors and the Roman Goddess Venus, the lover of Anchises and the mother of Aeneas, as their mythological ancestress.

List of Images:

  1. Fig. 1: Caterina Sforza, c. 1498. Sandro Botticelli: Primavera. Detail. Florence, Uffizi
  2. Fig. 2 and Fig. 2a: Caterina Sforza and Sandro Botticelli, 1496 or later. Workshop of Sandro Botticelli: Pallas and the Centaur. Florence, Uffizi
  3. Fig. 3: Caterina Sforza, the Regent of Forlì, c. 1489. Leonardo da Vinci: Caterina Sforza. Forlì, Pinacoteca Civica
  4. Fig. 4: Galeazzo I. Visconti as the Holy Virgin and as Jesus with the Visconti symbol of the loose knot, c. 1210. Duccio di Buonsigna († 1319): Madonna and Child with two Angels. Siena, Museo dell' Opera del Duomo
  5. Fig. 5: The Milanese Duke Filippo Maria Visconti with the Visconti symbol of the loose knot and his great love Agnese del Maino as Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin, c. 1425. Gentile da Fabriano: The Coronation of the Virgin. Detail. Milan, Brera
  6. Fig. 6: Francesco del Cossa: Bianca Maria Visconti as Saint Lucia with the Visconti symbol of the loose knot. Philadelphia, Museum of Art
  7. Fig. 7: Angela Sforza, a niece of Caterina Sforza, 1491. Leonardo da Vinci: Angela Sforza. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana
  8. Fig. 8: Caterina Sforza with the Visconti symbol of the loose knot. London, Victoria and Albert Museum
  9. Fig. 9: The jasmine on the head of Caterina's mother, Lucrezia de' Medici. Sandro Botticelli: Primavera, c. 1498, detail. Florence, Uffizi
  10. Fig. 10: Caterina Sforza with the Visconti symbol of the loose knot and the Riario symbol of the rose, c. 1477. Workshop of Sandro Botticelli: Madonna del Roseto. Florence, Uffizi
  11. Fig. 11: Caterina Sforza with her seven sons, Carlo, Giovanni Livio, Ottaviano, Galeazzo, Cesare and Francesco Sforzino (from left to right) and her youngest son, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, on her lap, c. 1498/99. The six older sons were depicted as they looked when they were 10 years old. Sandro Botticelli: Madonna and Child with six Angels (= Madonna della Melagrana). Florence, Uffizi
  12. Fig. 12: Caterina Sforza, c. 1477. Pietro Perugino: The Virgin and Child surrounded by two Angels and St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Mary Magdalene. Paris, Louvre
  13. Fig. 13: Caterina Sforza as the mythological ancestress of the Visconti-Sforza, the Roman Goddess Venus. Workshop of Sandro Botticelli: Venus Pudica, c. 1496/97. Geneva, Private Collection
  14. Fig. 14: Caterina's sister Chiara Sforza (in the centre) as the mythological ancestress of the Visconti-Sforza, the Roman Goddess Venus, with the specific colours of her dynasty, white and red, surrounded by her brother-in-law Giovanni de' Medici, her half-sister Stella Landriani, her niece Bianca Riario, her sister Caterina Sforza, her mother Lucrezia de' Medici and her brother-in-law Tommaso Feo and her late half-sister Bianca Landriani (from left to right). Sandro Botticelli: Primavera, c. 1498. Florence, Uffizi
  15. Fig. 15: Caterina Sforza (in the centre) as the mythological ancestress of the Visconti-Sforza, the Roman Goddess Venus, with her brother-in-law Tommaso Feo and her late half-sister Bianca Landriani (left) and her daughter Bianca Riario (right). Sandro Botticelli: Birth of Venus, c. 1497. Florence, Uffizi
  16. Fig. 16: Battista Sforza and her son Guidobaldo as the Virgin and Child, after 1472. Piero della Francesca: Madonna and Child with Angels, Saints and Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. (= Brera Altarpiece). Milan, Brera
  17. Fig. 17: Caterina Sforza as the Holy Virgin with the Visconti symbol of the shell, c. 1471/72. Leonardo da Vinci: Annunciation. Florence, Uffizi
  18. Fig. 18: Caterina Sforza as the Holy Virgin and Saint Catherine of Alexandria with the Visconti symbol of the shell with her seven sons, the painter as Saint Augustine and Saint Ignatius (depicted twice, the second person on the left and the second person on the right, lower row), and Sandro Botticelli as Saint Barnabas (the third person on the left in the lower row). Assistant of Sandro Botticelli: San Barnabas Altarpiece. Florence, Uffizi
  19. Fig. 19: Caterina Sforza as the Holy Virgin with the Child, c. 1497/98. Sandro Botticelli: Virgin and Child. Gogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums
  20. Fig. 20: Caterina Sforza. Workshop of Sandro Botticelli: Wrongly identified by art-historians as Simonetta Vespucci. Richmond, Sir Herbert Cook