Ah, history. When the 14th-century poet Petrarch popped into church one day, he set in train a series of events that led to the In Love with Laura exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum some 700 years later.
- Features Francesco Laurana’s coloured Renaissance Female Bust
- Explores the bust’s possible subject
- Might be based on Petrarch’s unrequited love
- Small exhibition with a lovely story to it
- Runs Jun 20 – Oct 15, 2023
- See also:
A mystery in marble
(Francesco Laurana (c.1430–1502), Female Bust, ideal portrait of Laura (?), Milan (?), c.1490 (?), marble, coloured, wax applications, H 44 cm, W 42.5 cm; Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna © KHM-Museumsverband)
When I rummage around our carefully curated shelves at home, the best I can come up with is an “also participated” medal from Year 3 athletics.
Things are different when you’re the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Especially when you dip into the Kunstkammer chamber of wonders. You might, for example, pull out a remarkable portrait bust from the late 1400s. Remarkable for its material, and possibly remarkable for its story.
The small In Love with Laura exhibition has the 15th-century Female Bust by Francesco Laurana as its centrepiece.
Unlike almost all surviving Renaissance marble busts, Laurana’s work has colouring that distinguishes the hair, lips, eyes and dress from skin.
But the identity of the subject remains a mystery. One theory seems entirely plausible, though…
Cast your mind back to the great 14th-century Italian poet, Petrarch.
On a spring day in 1327, Petrarch found himself in the Church of St. Clare at Avignon (home to the pope of the time). There he encountered a woman only ever known as Laura…and, like all good gentlemen of a poetic disposition, fell in love.
Though a love, sadly, that remained entirely unrequited.
(Exhibition view; press photo © KHM-Museumsverband)
In the fine tradition of the romantically frustrated, Petrarch wrote poems for his Laura. Many many poems. Scholars cannot identify the lady in question for certain (she may even have been a literary invention), but all those verses mean we have Petrarch’s descriptions of her.
Which is where Laurana comes in.
Though sculpted in the next century, Laurana’s bust seems remarkably similar to the picture of Laura painted by Petrarch’s words. Perhaps an idealised version of the lovelorn poet’s object of worship?
In Love with Laura explores the potential connection.
We see the bust itself, of course, with “Laura” bearing one of those expressions you can consider for hours and still remain unsure as to the interpretation. Is she aloof? Distracted? Sad? Bored? Tired? Or is her bearing merely reserved elegance?
(I found myself seeing the kind of expression you might have after a long conversation with a mansplainer.)
Research has shown, for example, that laurel flowers are embedded in the bust’s hair covering: another possible clue, since the name Laura derives from the laurel plant.
As a treat, we also have two further busts loaned from the Frick Collection in New York: an incredibly rare opportunity to see more than one of Laurana’s female busts together.
(Portraits of Laura and Petrarch in a collection of the latter’s poetry: Poetae clarissimi Francisci Petrarchae Opus, quod vulgo dicitur Canzoniere, praevia tabula, Iacobus Macarius, Siena, 1463; leather, parchment; photo © Florenz, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. XLI.1)
And additional objects add resonance to the possible connection to Petrarch’s Laura.
So, for example, we have a painting by Giorgione from 1506 which may be his version of Laura.
We also have two collections of Petrarch’s poems (from 1463 and 1549). The youngest has a woodcut portrait of the poet’s Laura on its frontispiece, bearing a strong resemblance to Laurana’s bust. The same can be said of the drawing of Laura in the older tome.
We shall never know the truth, of course, but the small exhibition is a fine saunter through a tale of Renaissance art, academic curiosity, and the power of love to inspire words, chisels or paintbrushes to create images we can still admire today.
Dates, tickets & tips
See Laura for yourself from June 20th to October 15th, 2023. An entrance ticket from or for the Kunsthistorisches Museum includes the special exhibition.
For some other busts that tickle the imagination, drop into Upper Belvedere Palace for the Messerschmidt character studies: quite remarkable works from the 1700s.
How to get to Laura
Address: Burgring 7, 1010 Vienna
(Article icon courtesy of the Met Museum)