Is Giorgione's "Laura" his version of Mary Magdalen? Like most of his paintings this one has defied interpreters for 500 years. Today most scholars agree that it is not a portrait and that it is not a depiction of Petrarch's lover.
The catalog entry for the 2004 Giorgione exhibition provided some tantalizing hints that could point to the Magdalen even though she is not fair-haired and does not hold the traditional jar of ointment. Her garb and pose indicate a Venetian courtesan but other elements depict a woman of virtue.
"Her sumptuous fur-lined red garment is, more than an item of male attire, the winter dress of Venetian women of pleasure…However, as noted by Goffen (1997), the thin white veil that partly covers her hair and falls over her breast is a typical accessory of married women…. The paradox that accompanies the interpretation of this painting lies in the fact that laurel is also a symbol of conjugal virtue…Giorgione’s Laura—regardless of whether she is a learned courtesan or a virtuous wife—is characterized by the extraordinary charge of sensuality and eroticism that makes this image unique in the painting of the early 16th century."* (197)
Maybe the painting is not as unique as the catalog suggested. In 2001 Paul Joannides discussed another portrait of a young woman that bore a remarkable similarity to the "Laura." He noted that it had often been attributed to Giorgione but insisted that "the closest comparisons are with Titian's work and there can be no serious doubt that it is his…."** (94) He continued,
"The Bust of a Young Woman is often thought to be a portrait of a courtesan,…There is an obvious link of mood and gesture with Giorgione’s Laura,…it is probably a fragment of a narrative composition….But the action is ambiguous: is she opening her dress to reveal her breast, like Laura, or closing it in modesty? Given the high finish and luxurious color, this fragment is more likely to have formed part of a painting for a private house than a public place…"(95-6)
"Perhaps more likely is that she is a Magdalene in a Mary and Martha, the subject represented in Milan in the work of Bernardino Luini and his circle and one that would certainly have appealed to Titian, allowing him to contrast female types. But without further evidence no suggestion can be more than speculative." (96)
Titian is the most prolific and famous painter of Mary Magdalens. His many versions of a beautiful, semi-nude, weeping penitent Magdalen spread all over Europe. His versions do not depict the gaunt Magdalen of Donatello, emaciated after years of fasting in the desert, but a still beautiful woman who has only recently thrown off her courtesan's finery, and appears covered only by her gorgeous red hair.
This portrayal no doubt represented Titian's own preference as well as the preferences of his aristocratic patrons. In 1531 Duke Federico of Mantua asked Titian for a Magdalen that he could present as a gift,
"I would like you to make me a St. Magdalen, as lachrymose as can be...and that you make every effort to make it beautiful, which for you will not be remarkable as you cannot do otherwise, when you really want to..."***In the 19th century Anna Jameson devoted a whole chapter in "Sacred and Legendary Art" to Mary Magdalen. In her own inimitable manner she noted the different styles of various times and places and expressed her opinion on the beautiful but distasteful Venetian versions.
in the display of luxuriant female forms, shadowed (not hidden) by redundant fair hair, and flung in all the abandon of solitude, amid the depth of leafy recesses, or relieved by the dark umbrageous rocks; in the association of love and beauty with the symbols of death and sorrow and utter humiliation; the painters had ample scope, ample material, for the exercise of their imagination and the display of their skill: but what has been the result? They have abused these capabilities even to license; they have exhausted the resources of Art in the attempt to vary the delineation; and yet how seldom has the ideal of this most exquisite subject been--I will not say realized—but even approached? We have Magdalenes who look as if they never could have sinned, and others who look as if they never could have repented; we have Venetian Magdalenes with the air of courtesans and Florentine Magdalenes with the air of Ariadne's; and Bolognese Magdalenes like sentimental Niobe's;... and Dutch Magdalenes, who wring their hands like repentant washerwomen. The Magdalenes of Rubens remind us of nothing so much as of the "unfortunate Miss Bailey;" and the Magdalenes of Van Dyke are fine ladies who have turned Methodists.**** ###
*Giorgione, Myth and Enigma: edited by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Scire, Vienna, 2004, pp. 197-8.
**Paul Joannides, Titian to 1518, Yale, 2001.
*** Rona Goffen, Titian's Women, Yale, 1997. p. 177.
****Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, Boston, 1895, v. 1, p. 353.