Thursday, October 17, 2013

Portrait in Armor

The man in armor holds a folded letter in his right hand. On the pretend-paper of that pretend-letter, enough handwriting is visible to identify the subject of the picture, its painter, and the date. The portrait was made in Rome in 1574, using a pose first brought into fashion by Titian in the 1530s (three-quarter-length representations of male aristocrats in extravagant military costume, with body angled at a three-quarter view). Scipione Pulzone was the artist's name. He was also known as Il Gaetano, and lived from 1544 to 1598. Recently Christie's auction house called him "the most celebrated portraitist of his generation."  It was in Christie's interest to find the picture interesting. They sold it in New York earlier this year for just over $7.5 million.

The subject was Jacopo Boncompagni at age twenty-six. Two years earlier he had become commander of the Papal Armies and keeper of Castel Sant'Angelo. Hence the ceremonial armor. He was the illegitimate but acknowledged son of Ugo Boncompagni, whose election to the Papacy in 1572 (as Gregory XIII) meant that honors, titles and riches would henceforward be heaped upon the beloved son.

In 1575 another Roman painter named Jacopo Zucchi created his Mass of Saint Gregory the Great (detail below) as a device to flatter the new administration. Zucchi portrayed the new Pope as Gregory the Great (in pearl-covered triple-crown) who had ruled the Church a thousand years earlier. Directly behind the Pope, and echoing his profile, is the Pope's son, seen from another angle, with a tonsure and wearing blue brocade [image from Vatican Pinacoteca here].  

The miracle attributed to Gregory the Great in the 7th century found its widest popularity as a theme for pictures in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy. As Gregory said Mass one day, so the story went, the consecrated Host on the altar transformed itself into the actual body of Jesus Christ, appearing as the Man of Sorrows. Catholics used this miracle to prove the Real Presence in the consecrated Host, one of the chief issues of Protestant dispute.

Below, an early French example of the genre, painted by Robert Campin in 1440. This is the sort of obscure, overstuffed picture art historians adore, with its overlapping layers of signal, sign, and symbol.