‘Portrait of a Young Noblewoman,’ is widely attributed to the artist Andrea Della Robbia, part of the artistic family, the Della Robbias. This work was created between 1465-1470, and is a ceramic work with terracotta, which is highly unusual for what we would think of as suitable for portraiture today. However, Luca Della Robbia, Andrea’s uncle, first began sculpting terracotta and using ceramics for his art, and found this technique to be immensely popular with the public, and as such, the tradition passed down throughout the family of artists. In fact, the name Robbia originates from a shade of red dye the family used.
Today, we do not know who the woman is in the portrait created by Della Robbia, however we can still ascertain some information from the artwork. This work was more than likely a marriage portrait, made to show potential suitors for the young woman. As such, the artist had the task of conveying not only the beauty of the woman, but aspects of her character and social status. As such, it was an important job, and only entrusted to reputable artists, such as the Della Robbias, who rose to fame in Florence during the Renaissance.
One of the most notable things about the portrait, is the way the woman is adorned. Upon her head, there is a cluster of pearls, alongside a string of pearls going around her head. This not only displays that she is from a wealthy family, and can therefore maintain the current trends, but it is also a symbol of purity. The whiteness of the pearls alongside the fact that they grow organically all implied purity, which was a much desired trait for women of the time; men would not want to marry someone who had lost their virginity and was no longer ‘pure.’ Equally, there are feathers coming out behind her head, as part of what we would call a ‘fascinator.’ This gives her an air of elegance and maturity, and serves to further reinforce the idea of wealth.
The young woman wears a very modest gown that goes up to her neck, just below another string of pearls around her neck. This is another statement of purity and chastity. The blue colour of the overblouse adds to this; blue was the colour associated with the Virgin Mary, who was held in the highest regard by the Church, and thus the colour brought similar connotations to the portrait. The green of the underblouse suggests youth and fertility due to its associations with nature, whilst also being slightly suggestive or provocative to male suitors, without compromising the woman’s modesty. By contrast, the woman’s face remains porcelain white. This was common of such portraiture at the time, as pale skin was seen as beautiful and youthful, and again, it remained as a symbol of purity and innocence, especially as girls were seen as suitable for marriage at a younger age; the woman in this portrait is probably around fourteen years old.
Della Robbia has suggested the woman is wearing slight make up around her eyes, which gives a sense of maturity whilst emphasizing her features, however, Della Robbia still portrays her as demure. The most powerful thing about the portrait is probably that the woman is looking down slightly to the side. Being demure was also attractive, as men wanted to be dominant with an obedient wife.
Regarding the artist, this work is ambiguous; we are not even sure if Andrea Della Robbia did create this; it could have been another Della Robbia, and stylistically it is difficult to tell the difference. We may ask why we don’t know, but it is simple; a marriage portrait was about the person in the portrait, and not the artist, and first and foremost, people at the time knew. Everyone was aware of the Della Robbias, in particular the increasingly famous Andrea, so people knew his work and could easily distinguish it, so there was no need to say who the work belonged to, so great was his fame. Now, we see it as a problem as we are unsure of the exact artist, as throughout time, his reputation has gotten lost to an extent, particularly with him belonging to a famous family. However, we can look back and appreciate how important Della Robbia was at the time to not have to declare his work as his own, and therefore see how privileged the Young Noblewoman was, to have her marriage portrait created so wonderfully by such a prominent artist.