Among the works of Lavinia Fontana there are a curious group of oil on cooper paintings of little dimensions in which the artist alternates portraits and religious scenes. This kind of painting are usually called piccola pittura, and it had a great development in the Bolognese school.
The use of cooper as a support for portraits meant that the paintings were for a domestic and private environment. Due to their little dimensions those works were easy to transport and exhibit. Those pieces were considered as delicate gifts to notables and collectors or were used as presentation letters to possible clients.
One of Lavinia Fontana’s portraits of piccola pittura is the Double Portrait of a Married Couple. There is not enough information on this little piece, which is part of the collection of the Museum of Zaragoza in Spain, the only thing we know for sure of its condition as commemorative piece.
The painting was attributed to Fontana in 2009, when Antonio Vannugli rejected the previous attribution to Benvenuto Tisi. Vannugli considered that this work was a classic example of Fontana’s early production; he also pointed that it could be a self-portrait of the artist for her marriage with Giovanni Paolo Zappi in 1577, however this hypothesis seems unlikely. The composition of the painting with small touches, intense illumination and a contrasted use of colour are consistent with the early production of the artist.
On one side of the copper plate is depicted the wife and in the other the husband, both are seated in the same chair. Both portraits complement each other, we can see this in the details of each composition, such as in the clothes.
The bride is a young lady wearing a red dress tight at the waist and with a veiled square neckline with white lace. Her jewels are decorated with rubies and pearls. The little flowers on her neckline and behind her ear are also red, they are possibly carnations. Her right hand holds a feathered fan with a gold chain and handle, while the execution of her left hand is incomplete, but it seems that was holding a handkerchief.
The gentleman’s portrait is in three-quarters and slightly in foreshortening on the right. He is wearing a black doublet, a white shirt with a wide collar underneath, and red socks. There is a golden handle of a sword behind the left arm of the chair, while on the other side there is a lapdog wearing a golden collar and staring at the gentleman.
The presence of this lapdog followed the conventions of the Bolognese portraiture of the time. Lapdogs are often associated to fidelity, and here it emphasises the elements of a happy married life.
According to Lucia Impelluso, the carnation flowers were considered as a symbol of conjugal love, a promise of love, that had some diffusion in portraits of married couples, especially in the Flemish and Nordic traditions. The way Fontana depicted in here, the curtains can be understood as another symbol of conjugal love as they evoke the marriage bed.