Alessandro Casolani (1552/53-1607), Young Woman Contemplating a Skull
Contemplations on death was a popular theme in the visual arts of the counterreformation, and when such images showed a woman meditating on a skull, the subject was usually Mary Magdalen mourning her loose living at the thought of the judgment awaiting her in the afterlife.
The woman in the picture
It was, however, fashionable to have one’s portrait painted as Mary Magdalen, and it is highly likely that the picture is in fact of Eleonora Montalvi degli Agostini, the wife of the ruler of Siena, a patron of Casolani.
This is borne out by a chiaroscuro woodcut by Andrea Andreani (1540-1623) after Casolani, showing a similar scene and dedicated to none other than Eleonora Montalvi.
Preliminary sketch, a copy of the print and the painting
The Collection of Prints and Drawings owns a copy of this print as well as a wonderful study for the painting. On the back of the study Casonali did a preliminary sketch for the woodcut. In fact the drawing made it possible to attribute this painting to Casolani. It was previously attributed to a Venetian painter, but the drawing comes from an album with prints by Sienese artists, including Casolani.