Friday, 30 September 2011

Identity Crisis at the NGV

My fellow-Enid Blyton aficionados will know that her books often have a chapter called "A Shock and a Surprise". However, not one of the Famous Five (nor indeed their dog) could have sustained a greater shock and surprise than I received at the NGV last week.

The Gentle Reader will remember an article I wrote some time ago about the charming portrait of the princess Sophie, Fille de France, daughter of Louis XV. She is one of my favourites and as I ambled through the room where she sits, looking up from her book all pink-cheeked and pretty, I caught sight of the wall label next to her: "Louise-Marie de France", it brazenly declared, "formerly believed to be a likeness of her sister, Sophie." Impudent hussy! Usurping her sister's place!

Fruitlessly rummaging in my handbag for smelling salts, I was forced to retire to the Members' Room for a restorative tea and biscuit. Anyway, I am not going to do all that research again. Everything I told you about Sophie no doubt goes for Louise Marie as well - except that Louise became a nun while Sophie just lived to a spinsterish old age with her sisters. It must be hard when you are so well-born that nobody except a king is considered a suitable husband. Mind you, husbands being what they were in those days, perhaps that old snob Louis' daughters were better off without them.

Another aristocratic lady in the NGV with a bit of an identity problem, is Lucrezia Borgia. Lucrezia's father, Pope Alexander VI, had no problem marrying his daughter off to his best political advantage, and indeed he did so three times. Each of her husbands seemed to die just when it would really have been more convenient for His Holiness had Lucrezia been free to marry someone else.

The portrait in the NGV was painted about 1520, when Lucrezia was married to her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara. (Soon to be the late Duke.)

The painting was acquired by the NGV in 1965, through the Felton Bequest. For forty-three years it was titled "Portrait of a Youth", by an unknown Italian artist. It was only in 2008 that the NGV announced the portrait to be that of Lucrezia Borgia, and that the painter is famed Renaissance artist Dosso Dossi.

Not only identity crisis but gender confusion as well! Definitely not a tea-and-biscuit shock: this is more your vodka-and-valium type of situation.

I for one am delighted to welcome Dossi's Lucrezia to the NGV and I don't miss "The Youth" and his unknown Italian painter at all. I have to say, reluctantly, that she is a bit of a minger. Not as beautiful as legend has it. But then, all princesses are called beautiful and Lucrezia, if not an actual princess, was the nearest thing to a princess that Rome had at the time.

Apparently it is the dagger in her hand that led to the belief that the sitter was a man. However, on closer study it was decided that the subject is more likely to be a woman: the myrtle bush and flowers are symbolic references to Venus. The dagger refers to Lucretia, the heroine of ancient Rome, who stuck a dagger into her heart after she was raped, thus preserving the honour of her family. (Wouldn't the honour of her family have been better preserved had she stuck the dagger into the rapist's heart instead?)

I particularly looked at the Dossi portrait because I am enjoying "The Borgias", a TV mini-series of doubtful historical accuracy, in which Jeremy Irons does a louche and sinister turn as the Pope, and Lucrezia is played by the very beautiful Holliday Grainger, who would never have been mistaken for a young man!