Portrait of a young lady holding a cat

Since this striking picture was last offered at Christie's in 1996, scholarship on Bachiacca has been transformed by the pioneering work of Robert La France, who in 2008 published an updated catalogue raisonné on the artist. One of his major discoveries is that many works traditionally attributed to the artist known as Bachiacca were in reality painted by numerous hands, all within a single family. The principal figure within this group remains Francesco d'Ubertino Verdi, who first adopted the nickname Bachiacca. In addition to Francesco, La France introduces the painter's siblings, Bartolomeo, known as Baccio, and the younger brother Antonio, along with the numerous children of all three brothers, all of whom worked as painters. Of these Florentine artists, without question it was Francesco and Antonio who enjoyed the most success, and thanks to La France's research, Antonio can now be recognized as a true master of Renaissance Florence.

Antonio was born on 6 February 1499, the third son of the goldsmith Ubertino di Bartolomeo and his wife Francesca di Benedetto di Niccolò, a manuscript illuminator. Following in his elder brothers' footsteps, Antonio joined the painter's guild (Arte de' Medici e Speziali) in 1532. By 1542 he was working in the Medici court of Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo alongside his brother, Francesco, who had already entered into the ducal service two years earlier. While Antonio is documented as primarily working as an embroiderer, designing collars, capes, pillows adorned with gold and pearls, and other luxurious objects for the duchess, the two brothers received identical salaries and both are recorded in the account books under the moniker 'Bachiacca' (La France, op. cit., 2008, pp. 34 and 78). In fact, Antonio was so renowned and his talents so admired that Benedetto Varchi (1503-1565), the celebrated Florentine humanist and poet, lauded him in a sonnet, declaring Antonio's embroideries so beautiful and many that 'after you [Antonio], the major [artists] would be minor' (for the complete poem, see La France, op. cit., 2008, p. 34). At the end of his poem, Varchi lists Antonio along with the sculptors and painters Cellini, Michelangelo, and Bronzino, as among the great artists who have embellished Florence with their varied creations. Giorgio Vasari similarly praised Antonio's talents as an embroiderer, yet Antonio also described himself as a painter on numerous occasions, including the ducal census of 1562, indicating that he, like so many of his contemporaries, worked in diverse media. Antonio and Francesco married sisters, Dorotea and Tommasa, the daughters of an apothecary, and their many children continued the Bachiacca workshop for several decades after Francesco's death, apparently also using the nickname Bachiacca (La France, op. cit., 2008, pp. 36-38).

In the 19th century, the present painting was owned by the great connoisseur and expatriate Charles Alexander Loeser (1864-1928), a friend and fellow Harvard graduate of Bernard Berenson, much of whose collection is now housed in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Associated with Bachiacca by Millard Meiss around 1932 (see La France, op. cit., 2008, p. 286), the picture was first published as by Francesco in 1955 (Le Triomphe du Maniérisme Européen, op. cit.). Since the 1950s, it has been consistently published as an autograph painting by Francesco, with two notable exceptions: in his 1978 dissertation on the artist, Charles Colbert suggested the portrait may have been painted by Francesco's son, Carlo and, more recently, La France proposed Antonio as its author (see below).

The present portrait owes a great deal to Leonardo da Vinci's celebrated Lady with an Ermine of circa 1490 (fig. 1). In both, a beautiful young woman cradles a domesticated animal while turning to look over her left shoulder. Leonardo's portrait almost certainly represents Cecilia Gallerani, the famed mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The ermine may thus refer to the sitter's surname, while alluding to Sforza's receiving the Order of the Ermine in the year the portrait may have been painted. Cecilia's reserved and dignified gaze toward her unseen lord is mirrored by that of the faithful and pure ermine in her hands, as would befit a lady of the court. Bachiacca's model, conversely, directly engages her viewer with a coquettish and confident glance, which is delightfully echoed by her cat. Unlike the ermine, which Renaissance authors associated with virginity, purity and moderation, the female cat was understood to be an overtly libidinous animal (see P.H. Jolly, 'Antonello da Messina's Saint Jerome in His Study: An Iconographic Analysis', The Art Bulletin, LXV, no. 2, June 1983, pp. 245-246, esp. note 36). This erotic overtone is underscored by the sensual manner in which Bachiacca's woman caresses her pet.

Read as an object of sexual temptation, Bachiacca's model, with her seductive expression, elaborate jewelry, and perhaps most importantly, her bright yellow dress, has been thought by some scholars to represent a courtesan. This theory was first advanced by Luisa Marcucci (op. cit.), who suggested that she was none other than Pantasilea, the notorious Roman courtesan with whom, according to Benvenuto Cellini, Francesco Bachiacca became hopelessly smitten. In Renaissance Italy, most cities enacted sumptuary laws requiring prostitutes to wear yellow, often in the form of scarves or veils. Pearls were also linked with courtesans as they were often given to them in lieu of payment (see L. Wolk-Simon, 'Rapture to the Greedy Eyes': Profane Love in the Renaissance', in A. Bayer ed., The Art of Love in Renaissance Italy, exhibition catalogue, New Haven and London, 2003, p. 47). Similarly conspicuous displays of jewelry can be seen in contemporary portraits of courtesans, such as the erotically-charged picture in the Worcester Art Museum, which was likely painted by Domenico Tintoretto and is often identified as a portrait of the Venetian poet and courtesan Veronica Franco (see P. Rossi, Jacopo Tintoretto: l'opera completa, I, i ritratti, Venice, [1974], p. 154). However, the mere presence of pearls does not necessarily transmit an obvious intent. Indeed, much of the ornamentation that the sitter wears, particularly the delicate gold embroidery of the collar and its exquisite, pearl-encrusted brooch, likely reflects the kind of precious objects that Antonio designed for the ladies of the Medici court.

Marcucci's theory was advanced by Lada Nikolenko (op. cit.), who dated the painting to 1525-1530, and further observed that the facial type is common in Bachiacca's work. Indeed, the sitter's features are remarkably similar to those of Francesco Bachiacca's Mary Magdalene in the Pitti Palace, Florence and his Allegorical Portrait of a Woman and Child, in the Fisher Art Gallery, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, often thought to represent a courtesan. Further similarities in the pose and physiognomy may be found in Francesco's Portrait of a woman with a lynx (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) and perhaps even more to his Virgin with Child in the Baltimore Museum of Art. As La France has observed, the elaborate coiffure, fanciful headdress and braided lock of hair which falls in front of the sitter's ear in the present painting seem to have been inspired by Michelangelo's so-called Divine head (GDSU, Florence, n. 598E r), a drawing depicting a bare-breasted woman in profile. He has therefore suggested that our sitter's physiognomy is based on the drawing - perhaps with additional inspiration from northern models, such as those of Ambrosius Benson and the Master of the Female Half-lengths -- rather than being a portrait of a specific individual (op. cit., 2008, pp. 209-210).

In his 2008 monograph, La France describes this painting as a high quality work produced by an artist who was intimately familiar with the style of, and perhaps even supervised by, Francesco; namely his younger brother Antonio (loc. cit.). While citing similarities to Francesco's Pitti Magdalene and his Los Angeles Allegorical Portrait, La France argues that the Portrait of a young lady with a cat is stylistically closer to the Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden and the Annunciation with Saints Sebastian, Nicholas of Bari and Roch altarpiece in Colle di Val d'Elsa. Both of these latter paintings, La France suggests, should now be given to Antonio and not, as they have in the past, to Francesco (op. cit., 2008, pp. 286-287). Noting a similar treatment of the facial features and profiles, the articulation of the networks of braids and curls in the figures' hair and other details, La France proposes that all three works should serve as the foundation for assembling the oeuvre of Antonio Bachiacca.

We are grateful to Robert La France for his assistance with the cataloguing of this picture.

Le Triomphe du Manierisme Européen de Michelange au Gréco,

exhibition catalogue, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1955, p. 49, under no. 15, as Francesco.

L. Nikolenko, Francesco Ubertini Called Il Bacchiacca, Locust Valley, New York, 1966, pp. 19, 52, fig. 50, as Francesco.

G. Rosenthal, ed., Italian Paintings, XIV-XVIIIth centuries from the Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, 1981, p. 94, as Francesco.

C. Nordenfalk, 'The five senses in late medieval and Renaissance art', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XLVIII, 1985, p. 17, as Francesco.

C. Colbert, Bacchiacca in the Context of Florentine art, Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1978, pp. 77, 113, as 'possibly Carlo'.

S. Ferino Pagden, I cinque sensi nell'arte 'immagini del sentire', Venice, 1996, p. 92, as Francesco.

R. La France, 'Franceso d'Ubertino Verdi, il Bachiacca, 1494-1557: Diligente Dipintore', Ph.D. dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2002, no. 109, as 'possibly Antonio'.

R. La France, Bachiacca, Artist of the Medici Court, Florence, 2008, pp. 286-287, no. 128, as 'Verdi studio'.


Charles Loeser, Florence.

Private collection, Florence (possibly Benedetti).

With French & Co., New York, 1981.

Anonymous sale; Christie's, New York, 12 January 1996, lot 187 ($442,500).

About Antonio D'Ubertino Verdi (called Bachiacca)

Italian, 1499-1572, Florence, Italy, based in Florence, Italy

Group Shows on Artsy

Renaissance, Christie's Old Masters, New York