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Renaissance Portrait Bust of a Woman, probably Isabella d'Este, by Gian Cristoforo Romano

As the three-dimensional portrait of a woman, this ravishingly beautiful terracotta bust is a work of exceptional rarity in Renaissance sculpture. It is attributed to Gian Cristoforo Romano, one of the foremost sculptors of the High Renaissance in Italy, and an accomplished musician, writer, and antiquarian. His style is characterized by a pervasive classicism, informed by his deep knowledge of the antique. Among the other portrait busts ascribed to Romano are terracottas of Francesco II Gonzaga (Palazzo Ducale, Mantua) and Girolamo Andreasi (Museo Bardini, Florence), and the marble bust of Beatrice d'Este (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

The probable subject of the present bust is Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua, in whose service Romano worked from 1497 to 1510. There is no record of a commission for a terracotta, but Isabella had written to Romano as early as June 1491 requesting a marble bust of herself similar to that of her sister Beatrice d'Este. The style of the bust fits well with the rare other example of his work.

Gian Cristoforo Romano : Bust of a Lady
Attributed to Gian Cristoforo Romano Italian, c. 1465-1512
Bust of a Lady, probably Isabella d'Este, c. 1500
Terracotta, formerly polychromed; 21 3/8 in. (54.3 cm) high; 21 1/2 in. (54.6 cm) wide
Kimbell Art Museum, acquired 2004
Photo courtesy of Kimbell Art Museum

Isabella was the most celebrated woman of her day, called "la prima donna del mondo." She cultivated one of the most illustrious courts in Renaissance Italy, and wielded considerable political power, acting as regent during her husband's absence and after his death. She was also a passionate and persistent patron who invited the most renowned artists in Italy to decorate her private quarters in the Ducal Palace in Mantua. A zealous, insatiable collector, she was the first woman to build a large and important collection of antiquities.

Known as the "tenth muse," Isabella was the subject of many works of art. Perhaps the most famous today is Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of her in profile in the Louvre, which corresponds closely to the Kimbell bust; both show her with the hairstyle and dress that might be worn by an eminent marchioness of northern Italy around 1500. The sculpture was originally painted; as with almost all such terracottas, this color was probably removed in the 19th century.

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BOOK TIP: Greek Gods, Human Lives
What We Can Learn from Myths

by Mary Lefkowitz
Yale University Press, New Haven November 2003
Cloth ISBN 0-300-10145-7

Greek Gods, Human Lives

Learned and often entertaining, classicist Mary Lefkowitz attempts to elucidate the religious experience behind the mythology of Ancient Greece. Through clear, concise language and numerous, but always pertinent, examples from the Iliad, the Odyssey, the tales of Hesiod, Athenian drama, Hellenistic poetry, the Aeneid and other works, Lefkowitz guides the reader toward the realization that modern man totally misunderstands the world and role of the gods as well as the polytheistic Greek's sense of divinity, sex, gender, human life, fate, morality, and justice. Moreover, rather than just taking her audience back in time to examine the evidence, the American scholar's survey helps us decipher a number of messages from the gods that seem uncanny when applied to the dramatic headlines and popular culture of the 21st century.

The book contains relevant illustrations from ancient Greek vase paintings and sculpture, notes and references, a thorough index, and most welcome for today's readers, a glossary of the important and influential deities, demi-gods, muses, heroes and assorted mortal celebrities that comprised the Greek pantheon and its mortal entourage. With the approach of the Athens Olympic Games, this book is essential.

Antoine du Rocher

Antoine du Rocher is a French cultural journalist and writer based in New York. He is also a member of the editorial board of

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