The Girl With The Tiny Unicorn

I imagine her eyes sliding to her left, making eye contact with her husband or husband’s family. They are first watching her, then scrutinizing her rendering from behind the artist. She holds this animal in her hands as a physical reminder that she is a pure and graceful creature. She gently—almost imperceptibly—rubs its hind leg, trying to keep it still for this momentous occasion. The large, blood-red jewel hanging from her neck is heavy and her back is stiff from sitting in the same position, but it is all for a wedding—her wedding.

The truth is no one knows who the unidentified sitter of Raphael Sanzio’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn is. We have no idea if she had a demanding mother-in-law, if that animal was originally a dog or an actual unicorn (okay, maybe the former is more likely…), or if this was even commissioned for a wedding.[i] In fact, we didn’t even attribute the painting to the correct painter until the early thirties when it was restored.[ii]

Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, ca. 1505–1506.
Oil on canvas, transferred from panel, 26 5/8 x 20 15/16 in. (67.7 x 53.2 cm). Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Raphael Sanzio of Urbino was precocious talent from a young age, earning the title of master and hard-hitting commissions from the Pope and aristocrats all in his early twenties. Though his art was principally religious, he showed a distinct interest in the human anatomy as a result of his mentorship under Leonardo Da Vinci and friendship with Michelangelo. A majority of his portraits focus on female subjects, whether it is his mistress, the Virgin Mary, or nameless blue-eyed aristocrats.

For its US debut, Raphael Sanzio’s mysterious Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn (1505-1506) will be showcased at the Cincinnati Art Museum and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture and the Galleria Borghese. It’s taken over three hundred years, but the Roman museum is lending one of its most prized possessions to the US’s care until next spring.

Appropriately, the name of this exhibit “Sublime Beauty” is inspired by his distinct style and appreciation for women. The show centers on this woman’s possible identity and the painting’s iconography, exploring related Renaissance art and poetry, along with its connection to Leonardo’s famed Mona Lisa. The composition of Raphael’s painting is evocative of the Mona Lisa because of “its half-length format, its sitter with hands folded in her lap and its setting before a distant landscape”[iii]. Leonardo and the much younger Raphael were both working in Florence at the time, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the former influenced Raphael’s style.

As someone who lives 8,000 miles away from home, any connection to home is as startling and exciting as seeing peanut butter or granola bars at the supermarket here in Saigon. To see Cincinnati bring home an Italian masterpiece speaks to its growing clout in the industry as they tackle this bona fide art world mystery. Wish I could see the tiny unicorn for myself, but instead I’ll be enjoying my imported peanut butter and looking up puppy memes.

Read up on the breadth of Raphael’s works before visiting the “Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” exhibit from October 2015—January 2016 at the Cincinnati Art Museum or from January 2015—April 2016 at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Marianne Manzler

[i] Scholars believe that it was originally a dog as a symbol of fidelity, but Raphael changed it into a unicorn when the wedding was called off.



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