Maria stares resolutely at the portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio; she has been wondering about the lives of the aristocracy since discovering that her great-grandfather was a nobleman in the service of the British empire. He was a colonel in the East India Company’s army and was sent to India to oversee the administration of the Company’s trading regulations. He became a Resident in one of the Indian states and married an Indian woman of high caste. Maria’s great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her sixth daughter; the townsfolk gossiped about the curse of the White Man’s blood. Maria’s relationship with her aristocratic family is laced with tension; any questions of her family history met with either a defensive silence or a click of her grandmother’s fiery tongue. Maria learnt long ago not to rock the family boat.
Ginevra’s skin has a peachy glow; her cheeks are accentuated with a muted rose tone blusher. Maria is mesmerised by Ginevra’s immaculate creamy complexion, she has skin so fair that its almost translucent; Maria’s is three shades darker by comparison, a result of the tropical sun and her Indian father whom she never met. Yet, her grandmother insists that they are of British stock. The mystery of grandmother’s obsession with skin tones never ceases to amuse Maria; her grandmother who has an olive complexion was always trying to lighten it by washing herself in lemon juice. How many shades of brown can there really be? Claudine, Maria’s mother, is obsessed with Vitamin D much to her mother’s vexing. Claudine who has dark green eyes with a hint of blue is constantly trying to make her skin a shade tanner. Maria stays out of the UV rays because she knows that the sun can cause premature aging.
Maria notes that Ginevra’s chin shows some signs of aging; Ginevra would be about 38 years old; maybe even 40. Maria is a facial therapist, she knows faces. It’s her job to advice women on the conditions of their skins and how to combat signs of aging through regular facial treatments and products made by skin labs in Europe. Her clients are mostly wealthy women – old money – as this strata of society is called in Delhi who are preoccupied with staying young and fair-skinned.
There is a slight sagging of the chin just below the jaw line but the artist has painted Ginevra in a good light. There are no visible wrinkles around her left eye; an opening, a window perhaps, shows the city below; Ginevra is looking out, her gaze fixed at a point not visible to Maria. Ginevra’s eyes are set deep and framed by a faint brow which has been pruned according to the beauty requirements of Ginevra’s time. There is a stoic resignation in her thin lips which belie any emotion. Maria can’t tell if this aristocrat is happy or sad; her face gives away nothing. Maria, by contrast, wears her heart on her sleeves.
“This child has the mannerisms of a peasant,” grandmother’s voice penetrates the silence of the room where Ginevra’s portrait hangs. Grandmother is always present in the grey mass of Maria’s subconscious.
It intrigues Maria that aristocrats extol certain ways of behaving. Grandmama – with an inflection on the last syllable ‘ma’ – as her grandmother preferred to be called, used to say that princesses would never behave this way if Maria were to slip out of line during their routine Sunday lunches at her grandparents’. Claudine simply chewed her meal in silence and glugged down her wine. It’s bad form to drink so heavily and noisily, Claudine knows, but she is past caring about how her mother feels. The wine is the only liquid that would calm her nerves when chai wasn’t available. Claudine doesn’t stop her mother from chastising Maria; there is no ammunition powerful enough to combat an angry dragon. The hurt of being a kutcha butcha has led to years of unresolved rage and Claudine can only shield her daughter so much as she grapples about how she can save herself. Her defiance in keeping the bastard child of a summer fling with an Indian intern at the bank resulted in a wave of unmitigated rage in her mother. Claudine’s English father remained determined that her rebellion was to spite him for insisting on remaining in India when many of Claudine’s cousins had left for Canada or England. Robert FitzWilliams was born in India to English expatriates and India was where he wanted to remain. Little did he know, it was really Claudine’s insistence on bringing an Indian child into this world that was the reason for keeping Maria. She would bring Maria up Indian and Feminist.
The sudden discovery of blue blood in her family connected the missing dot for Maria. It explains why grandmama insisted so incessantly on her keeping out of the sun and why she should refrain from being too dark-skinned. This discovery led Maria to researching her family roots, of probing into a racial category of people known previously as the Eurasians before finally being called Anglo-Indians.
Since then she is enveloped by a sense of calm; Maria also knows now why her mother insists on a bohemian existence in the city where she teaches yoga and meditation. Yoga helps in focusing the mind and meditation helps in keeping the mind still; both are ancient practices that predate Hinduism and Buddhism; importantly, both are practices that Claudine chose to mark her identity as Indian.
As for Maria, she has never doubted her Indian identity. She is resolute about who she is and remains so even after discovering that she has blue blood.
Ercole de’ Roberti (c. 1451 – 1496) was an important painter in the Early Renaissance. He was one of the painters of the School of Ferrara. Ferrara was ruled by the Este family who was well known for being patrons of the arts. Ercole de’ Roberti rose to being a court painter for the Este family.
The art historian Giorgio Vasari documented de’ Roberti’s life and work in his famous book which is still used today by scholars of the Renaissance to understand artists from that period. Vasari writes that de’ Roberti was a bon vivant. De’ Roberti died young from his excesses; his paintings are few and many of his works have been destroyed. Those that survive show his skills and talent.
This portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio has a partner: The portrait of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Ginevra’s husband, who was known for being a tyrant. The two portraits can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Portraits were symbols of status during the Renaissance. Only the wealthy and powerful had the means to commission artists to paint them in their true likeness. Portraits were also documents of fashion and style; Renaissance scholars are able to understand how the wealthy families in Italy dressed and looked by studying their portraits. De’ Roberti painted Ginevra Bentivoglio so meticulously that her pearls and gems seem real. I like this painting for its realistic reflection of Ginevra’s dress and head dress. I see lines and shapes in her profile and bust which indicate de’ Roberti’s skills as a draughtsman.
Apart from portraits, de’ Roberti also painted diptychs and icons. The National Gallery in London exhibits ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ and ‘The Dead Christ’. The two portraits form ‘The Este Diptych’ and were bound together in purple silk velvet. They belonged to Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara who was also the consort of Ercole I d’Este. She would have used the portraits as an aid to meditation and prayer.
Image credit: The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio, c. 1474/1477, tempera on poplar panel, overall: 53.7 x 38.7 cm (21 1/8 x 15 1/4 in.)
framed: 80 x 66 x 7.6 cm (31 1/2 x 26 x 3 in.)