Once upon a time, circa 1505 or 1506, the great High Renaissance painter Raphael painted a little known worked titled “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn.” As you can see, said painting does indeed feature one lady and one unicorn.
Except the title sort of downplays the whole mystical horned horse aspect. Raphael’s unicorn, it should be noted hyperbolically in the headline, is a BABY unicorn that could easily be mistaken for a furry teacup puppy or a very amiable kitten. It’s tiny mouth appears to be neighing, for crying out loud! Cue immense d’awwwwww.
This blessed portrait, originally housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, caught our attention when a curious press release landed in our inboxes, announcing the painting’s debut appearance in the United States later this year. The exhibition, very correctly titled “Sublime Beauty,” will bring what is inarguably the world’s most adorable baby unicorn first to the Cincinnati Art Museum and then to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, Calif. We can hear the lines forming now.
But why does one lone painting of a lady and her pet unicorn deserve the attention of the Internet? According to Dr. Esther Bell, curator in charge of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Raphael’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” is not only “a stunning masterpiece of the Italian High Renaissance,” it’s also a bona fide art world mystery.
The identity of the blond woman behind the unicorn, it turns out, is unknown, as is the meaning or iconography of the bite-size unicorn in her lap. Some scholars believe the painting may have been commissioned for a wedding; the unicorn could be interpreted as a symbol of chastity. For example, Alan Riding, in a 2001 article in The New York Times, speculated that ”Portrait of a Lady” originally showed a betrothed woman holding a dog, “a symbol of fidelity.” However, when the subject’s marriage was called off, Raphael may have replaced the dog with a unicorn, a nod to her virginity.
Others note the portrait’s resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” referencing minute details like the painting’s half-length format, the presence of folded hands and the distant landscape in the background. Not to mention, that stare. Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino — aka Raphael — is known in part for his association with masters like Leonardo, Michelangelo and, thank you “TMNT,” Donatello. Leo and the much younger Raphael were both creating works in Florence, Italy in the 16th century, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch if the latter was influenced by the former’s style.
“The ‘Mona Lisa’ is the singular portrait of the High Renaissance, but we find ‘Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn’ to be just as beautiful and compelling,” Bell told the San Francisco Gate. “We believe Raphael was familiar with da Vinci’s work, and there is definitely a stylistic tie to be made to the ‘Mona Lisa.'”
In the aforementioned press release, Bell teases that the “Sublime Beauty,” which opens on Oct. 3, will introduce new scholarship on the miniature beast and his mysterious owner. The New York Times’ recently reported that the woman in the painting, curator Linda Wolk-Simon believes, could be the daughter of Pope Alexander VI’s mistress, Giulia Farnese.
Until October, all we can do is feast upon the tiny creature’s beauty here. While some museums are paying homage to contemporary cat memes, and others are celebrating the squee-inducing kitties of art history past, members of the Cincinnati and San Francisco art communities have this to say: don’t forget about the baby unicorn.
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