Fontainebleau School circa 1590
A Portrait of Sabena Poppea
This alluring image celebrates two of the most intriguing and influential ladies in history. While the subject traditionally alludes to the Roman mistress and second wife of the Em-peror Nero, the physical likeness suggests it represents a portrait of the mistress of Henry IV of France, Gabrielle d’Estrees. This identification is confirmed by comparison with the painting in the Louvre of Gabrielle and one of her sisters, the Duchesse de Villars, in the bath. It would make perfect sense to represent the infamous Poppea, who negotiated her way into the imperial bed through merciless intrigues by using the image of the French roy-al mistress, albeit a lady of considerable more virtue and finesse, both as a politician and diplomat.
Accounts of Poppea’s trajectory to Empress, or Augusta, are many and varied, and include references by authors such as Tacitus and Suetonius. It seems probable that her father was “in trade” in the tiling business, but that her mother came from a more distinguished family. Their possible home was the House of Menander in Pompeii. After marriage to a member of the Praetorian Guard, then to Otho, a close friend of Nero, Poppea reputedly manoeuvred her way into the Emperor’s affections and subsequently married him in 62 AD, Nero having sent Otho away and divorced his first wife and step-sister Claudia Octavia. Accounts of Poppea’s activity as Empress vary between benign and destructive, but the manner of her death is more precise. Having enraged her husband with criticism, he kicked her pregnant belly or jumped on it and killed her. Imperial remorse resulted in a state funeral at which gargantuan amounts of Arabian incense were burned. The empress survives in culture as the subject of Monteverdi’s opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and Handel’s Aggrippina.
By contrast the career of Gabrielle d’Estrees was more straightforward. After Henry IV succumbed to her charms in 1590 she assumed the role of political and diplomatic advisor with access to his council through the gold key. Her smart achievement as a Catholic was persuading her lover the king to realise that “Paris is well worth a Mass” and forsake his na-tive religion to adopt Catholicism. Later, together with her Protestant sister Catherine, she used diplomatic gifts to bring both religious sides together and negotiate the Edict of Nantes which allowed Protestants freedom of worship. The famous portrait in the Louvre where Gabrielle sits with her sister holding the king’s coronation ring shows a sensual side with huge erotic charge. This sensuality is transferred to our portrait where the graceful profile of her body is discreetly blurred by a veil. Although viewed from a different angle, the roy-al mistress’s features have been sublimated into those of the infamous Poppea.
The unidentified artist of our work belonged to the Second School of Fontainebleau, which flourished mainly under the reign of Henri IV and after the the brutal Wars of Religion in France had finally ceased. Though perhaps not as creative as the First School of Fon-tainebleau, which under the patronage of the charismatic Francois Premier and Henri II had boasted Mannerist artists of the stature of Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio, the Second School initiated several impressive decorative schemes by Toussaint Dubreuil and his col-laborator Ruggiero de Ruggieri, himself a pupil of Primaticcio. Further decorations were added by Martin Freminet, strongly influenced by Michelangelo, in the Chapel of the Trini-ty. Our portrait is one of the few surviving documents of the this era to show one of the principal patrons of the Second School.
Private Collection, Sydney