Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn

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The lady with the unicorn is a work that attracts special attention and the very history of this painting is quite interesting.

In 1934 – 1936 conservation was done on a painting (oil on panel) with the representation of St. Catherine of Alexandria, which was thought to be the work of Perugino. With the help of X-rays, it was discovered that there is an older scene on top of which in the 17th century an unknown painter added a coat on the shoulders, a broken wheel and a palm branch. By removing these attributes, the image got a new look with a representation of a young lady and a unicorn that appears in the place of the broken wheel. Thanks to this conservation we got today’s look of this masterpiece. Critics say it was made by Raffaello, so the painting was named “Lady with a Unicorn”.

He painted it in 1505 – 1506 in Florence. The girl wearing a green and red velvet dress is placed in a loggia with pillars. Gold pendant hangs around her neck, with red gemstone and a white pearl in the shape of a drop. In the background landscape gives depth to the image, and highlights the figure in the foreground.

The question is who this person is. We do not see rings on her hands, which is quite unusual considering that at that time female portraits were usually painted for weddings. At the same time, the lady holds firmly a unicorn in her hands, a symbol of virginity, and according to medieval legends, this mythical creature can be tamed by a virgin only, which leads us to the fact that the girl in the picture is still unmarried.

In 1959 the painting was again treated with X-rays and it was determined that Raffaello originally painted a dog under the unicorn, a symbol of family fidelity in his time, which makes the mystery about the identity of the person even more puzzling. Some speculate that it could be young Maddalena Strozzi, the wife of Agnolo Doni. The other version is that it is Julia Farnese, the mistress of Pope Alexander VI Borgia (historians have determined that the family symbol of the Farnese family is a unicorn) or it may be Laura Orsini, a relative of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia.

Leonardo’s influence is evident, especially from his “Mona Lisa” and “The Lady with an Ermine”, such as the position of the figure itself (angle pose), folded arms, the landscape in the background and the airy perspective. However, the expression on her face and look is different from that of the Mona Lisa, known for its enigmatic smile and mystery.