True face of murdered Renaissance princess revealed


If you thought beauty standards were just a modern day issue, then you should probably think again.

A museum in Pennsylvania has recently solved the mystery of an unsigned Renaissance portrait that suffered from a severe case of mistaken identity for the last 150 years.

The portrait, which featured a pretty, soft-looking woman, was long-believed to be of famed beauty Eleanor of Toledo.

Eleanor of Toledo was an Italian noblewoman who had links to royal families right across the European continent.

She married the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de ‘Medici, in 1539 and to this day, she is considered to be the woman who set the modern standard for ”first ladies”.

However, it turns out that the painting is not of Eleanor at all and rather of her daughter, the much more striking-looking Princess Isabella de’ Medici.

Princess Isabella was the apple of her father’s eye but she was doomed to meet a gruesome end.

It is believed that in 1576, she was murdered by her husband the Duke of Bracciano, Paolo Giordano Orsini, after he discovered she was having an affair with his cousin.

For all these years, Isabella’s strong nose, brazen stare and high forehead plucked of hair (as was actually the fashion in her time) was hidden beneath layers of paint applied by an English artist in the mid-19th century.

This was likely done to render the work more appealing to Victorian-era buyers who were not accustomed to the Princess’s strong facial features.

However, this re-painting  altered Isabella’s appearance so much that she became unrecognisable and was instead mistaken for her softer-looking mother.

after    before

  The portrait as it appeared when believed to be      The original portrait of Isabella de’ Medici  which

                             of Eleanor of Toledo.                                         was hidden under layers of newer paint.

Carnegie Museum’s former chief curator Lulu Lippincott was puzzled by the portrait when she first came across it.

Suspecting it to be a fake, she referred it to museum conservator Ellen Baxter who was immediately intrigued.

Ms. Baxter couldn’t make sense of the painting.

Initially believing it to have been of Eleanor of Toledo, she accepted that the attire, with its high collar and richly patterned bodice, was reflective of the 16th century fashion the noblewoman would have worn.

However, to Ms. Baxter the face was all wrong.

She thought the portrait’s rosy cheeks and gently smiling lips were overly bland and looked too much like ‘‘a Victorian cookie tin box lid’’ and so she decided to investigate further.

Having found small cracks in the wood, the conservator suspected the portrait had been transferred from wood panels onto canvas sometime after it was originally painted.

Eventually, she found the stamp of Francis Needham on the back of the work.

Needham worked in the National Portrait Gallery in London in the mid-1800′s and specialised in transferring paintings from wood panels to canvas.

X-rays at a local imaging centre confirmed another of Ms. Baxter’s suspicions: newer layers of paint were covering the original art work.


       An X-ray reveals the true face of the portrait.


                                                The original begins to reveal itself as layers of paint are removed.

After painstakingly removing these newer layers, the original portrait  revealed itself to be of Isabella and not of her mother as was first thought.

The breakthrough was confirmed when Ms. Lippincott found a copy of the original painting in a Florentine art history book.

It had been commissioned by the Medici family around 1574 and then sent to Vienna.

Ms. Baxter cleaned up the portrait by removing yellowed varnish and by lightly filling in any areas of paint loss.


                                                   Conservator Ellen Baxter restores the 1574 painting.

It now sits in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and is being featured in the current ”Faked, Forgotten, Found” exhibit.

Alessandro Alori may have been the work’s original artist.

Images via: The Daily Mail

Morgan Oss is many things - media student, bookworm, day dreamer and a chronic sufferer of the travel bug. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.

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