Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Portrait of a Young Nobleman
The left and bottom edges of this panel have been trimmed; originally all of the sitter’s right hand would have been included. The face is highly worked, but other areas are thinly sketched, suggesting that the work may be unfinished. The restricted palette and asymmetrical pose give an air of tension and melancholy.
The sitter in this portrait by Parmigianino has short hair, which was fashionable from the 1530s. He wears a travelling cloak, a black silk jerkin with a white linen shirt. The bulk of the cloak contrasts with the delicate ties of his chemise collar and the decorative detailing around the cuffs.
Typical of Parmigianino are the refined finish of the face, the subtle modelling of the flesh using cool greys for areas in shadow, and the definition of the white collar in full and half-light, caught with a few accurate strokes. The setting of the head against a low horizontal was a device favoured by the artist as early as c.1523. The door frame anchors the man’s figure, which is set at an unnervingly distorted angle to us. His head is turned slightly to one side, his shoulders are at different heights and his right arm pushed towards us without clearly defining the space between viewer and sitter. The restricted colour range, with a dominance of blacks and greys encouraging the viewer to focus on the sitter’s pale face caught in an intense light, give the portrait an air of tension and melancholic introspection.
The influence of the portraits of the Florentines Bronzino, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino is evident in this painting. The relation of head to shoulders and outstretched right arm and the cropped locks of hair recall the antique sculpture 'Amor stringing a Bow' (Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome), which has been considered a source for Parmigianino’s 'Cupid Carving his Bow' of c.1530-34 (Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna). Parmigianino may have seen the version of the sculpture in Rome, or possibly that in the Grimani collection, Venice: he may have travelled to Venice in 1530, but many antique sources seen in Rome have been traced in both his paintings and drawings. For example, the tight folds of the sleeve in the current painting, and the way in which the sitter wears his cloak, have been likened to a toga. It is tempting to suggest that the artist was inspired by antique art in general when he portrayed this young man, even if no specific source can now be traced.
There is some consensus among scholars in dating this portrait to Parmigianino’s Bolognese period 1527-30: the composition has at various times been compared to 'The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine' of c.1525-6 (National Gallery, London), the handling of the paint and face to features in the 'Virgin and Child with St Margaret, St Jerome, St Benedict and an Angel' of c.1528-9 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) and the 'Virgin and Child with the Young Baptist, Mary Magdalene and Saint Zachariah' of c.1530-33 (Uffizi). Copertini, however, suggested a later dating, likening the face to that of 'St Stephen in the Virgin and Child with St Stephen, St John the Baptist and a donor' of c.1539-40 (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden).
Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007