Turning to the viewer with a sidelong glance and wearing an enigmatic expression, a young woman plays the lute. A skillfully-rendered sheer veil covers her wavy hair and intricate embroidery and jeweled trimming lines the bodice and sleeves of her green velvet gown. The music notes transcribed in the book below her follow some kind of comprehensive melody, but not one which can be identified with a known piece of music. The identity of the lady is unknown—this may be a portrait of a private client (the artist specialized in such commissions) or is perhaps a demonstration of the artist’s ability to describe beauty and luxurious textiles.
This painting belongs to a series of works by Bartolomeo Veneto, which depict an unidentified female sitter playing a lute. Other similar compositions exist in which the lute has been replaced by a wheel, transforming the lady into Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The prime or original version of this composition is not readily identifiable within the group. Scholars have theorized that these portraits, all of which are unsigned, may have been copied from an unknown source, perhaps an earlier work by Bartolomeo himself, or a fifteenth century prototype. Bartolomeo’s lutenist portraits recall the female models of Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), to whom this painting was ascribed in the nineteenth century. Further association with Leonardo is created by the presence of a creature draped across the crook of the lady’s left arm—reminiscent of the ermine in Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, known as Lady with the Ermine, now in the National Museum, Krakow. The animal in Bartolomeo’s painting is not, however, a live ermine as in Leonardo’s painting, but a dead one. The so-called zibellino, or flea pelt, was a sable fur frequently worn by high-ranking women in sixteenth century portraits and believed to repel fleas.