Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn
Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn is a painting by Raphael (Raffaelo Sanzio), which art historians date to 1505 or 1506. It is oil on canvas laid down on wood with 67 x 56 cm dimensions. You can see it in Room IX of the Borghese Gallery in Rome.
The portray was initially oil on panel, and was transferred to canvas during conservation work in 1934. It was within the course of this work that overpainting was expelled, revealing the unicorn, and removing the wheel, cloak, and palm frond that had been included by an unknown painter during the mid-17th century.
The canvas may be admired today in its original state thanks to the conservation of 1935, which removed subsequent repainting that had transformed the portrait of a young woman into a representation of St Catherine of Alexandria and hidden the landscape behind her.
The unicorn, the symbol of purity that the woman holds on her lap, was, in reality, concealed by the attributes of the saint’s martyrdom – the wheel and the palm – while a cloak covered her shoulders. These alternations were probably made at the end of the 17th century when the canvas, following the description of the inventory of 1682, appeared to be “badly flaking.” After this, there was no further mention of the work until the fidei-commission of 1833.
The composition of the picture, placing the figure in a loggia opening out onto a landscape, the three-quarter-length format, was motivated by the Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506.
Christof Thoenes observes:
“However unabashedly Raphael adopts the pose, compositional framework and spatial organization of the Leonardo portrait…the cool watchfulness in the young woman’s look is very different” from the “enigmatic ambiguity” of Mona Lisa.
Even though he believed that the painting might have been by Granacci or Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, Giovanni Morelli pointed out its similarity to a masterpiece in the Louvre, which subsequently allowed Roberto Longhi to attribute it to Raphael, guided by Adolfo Venturi’s previous intuition. From 1505 to 1506, the work is part of the Olimpia Aldobrandini bequest.
As one can notice, it is very unusual that there are no rings on the woman’s fingers, including wedding rings. This is uncommon because female portraits of that time were usually created on a wedding occasions. At the same time, she holds a tiny unicorn in her hands, which symbolizes purity. Following medieval legends, only a virgin could tame the unicorn.
Interestingly, the painting was mentioned for the first time under the name “St. Catherine of Alexandria” by Perugino only in 1760 and was considered a portrait of an unknown lady with the attributes of a holy martyress. “St. Catherine” was subject to restoration only in 1934-1936. Restoration affirmed the theory of art history specialist Roberto Longhi that the representation of the young lady with a Unicorn was composed by Raphael.
The following restoration was carried out in 1959. “Young Woman with Unicorn” became the primary canvas within the history of the study of X-ray radiography. It was found that the unicorn was also included afterward. And the portrait was a picture of a youthful woman with a dog in her arms.
The image of a dog in a representation was considered a symbol of marital fidelity at the time of Raphael. Such representations were usually requested in the event of the wedding since the state of the picture was not the finest. In 1959 the restorers chose to leave the unicorn intact.
Besides, it remains unclear who is this youthful lady. This is assumed to be the young Maddalena Strozzi, the spouse of Agnolo Doni. Art students of history consider the drawing by Raphael as a sketch for the portrait of Maddalena. According to another version, the model of Raphael was Julia Farnese, the mistress of Pope Alexander VI Rodrigo Borgia. History specialists cite the fact that the family symbol of the Farnese family was the unicorn.