Sophia Sartor is a character in the video game Assassin’s Creed, she is based on Albrecht Durer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman from 1505. This small painting, 325 X 245 mm, is in oil paint on wood and combines elements of both Northern and Italian Renaissance to stunning effect. Durer’s skill at catching and portraying the sensuous character of the subject is so great in this picture that many have surmised that he had an emotional attachment.
The Northern elements include the fastidious, realistic detail, the head and shoulders (bust) three quarter pose, the neutral expression and the black background. You can see these in many other Northern portraits. Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (1433), Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady (1460) and Hans Memling’s Tommaso di Folco Portinari (1470) being good examples.
It was painted on Durer’s second visit to Venice where he had studied the Italian masters and learned mathematical single point perspective. He had befriended Giovanni Bellini so had the best possible mentor.
The Venetians style was characterised by their emphasis on the use of light (when JMW Turner arrived in Venice he said “light at last”), the vibrant paint colours which they had the best supply of in the world and their interest in textures and patterns. You can see all of these in Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman. Though many surmise that the picture is unfinished, especially in the area of the left sleeve and bow and perhaps the bodice.
The light is diffused and comes from the left (you can see faint shadows of her nose and necklace), as is prevalent with right handed artists, the light skin tones are framed by her ginger hair and contrast with her pearl and black necklace. There are many textures in the picture, clothing, skin, lips, hair, gold hairnet, eyes and eyebrows. These are rendered with a gentle clarity to form a cohesive whole. The only discordant note is the dark black of the right hand bow on her dress, which has marked chiaroscuro and is the strongest element in the whole portrait. Possibly a deliberate counterpoint to the softer colours and textures elsewhere.
By choosing a plain black background Durer is relying on the subject to create the illusion of space, he does this with such realistic modelling that she seems palpable. The perspective is what photographers call close up, giving the girl immediacy and presence. Durer’s skill makes her beautiful, yet look more closely and she is far from the classical ideal, with a strong chin and a big nose. They eyes give her a wistful aura so strong that you can almost see into her soul.
The cohesive techniques and elements that Durer brought together in this portrait have created a very special image that enable the viewer to relate to and empathise with the subject. It would be very difficult for a photograph of the sitter to be so profoundly engaging. That it has inspired a modern video game character shows that it has a resonance that connects with people throughout the ages.