As is usual with Antonello’s portraiture, the figure is depicted in a three-quarter-length view of a half-bust against a dark background. The very lively expression and gaze are the most striking aspects of the painting, considered a masterpiece among the artist’s mature works. The man portrayed wears a red robe and black cap, the typical attire of those Venetian patricians who admired and were patrons to Antonello da Messina. For stylistic reasons, the painting must be dated to the artist’s Venetian sojourn of 1475-1476. The panel is unsigned, but it has been assumed that the painter’s name was on a cartouche placed directly on the frame. The work was first listed in the Borghese inventories of 1790 with an attribution to Giovanni Bellini and only retraced to Antonello in 1869. Recent studies rule out the hypotheses, formulated in the past, that identified the portrait as that of the patrician Michele Vianello, found in an important Venetian collection in the 16th century, as well as its possible provenance from the 17th-century collection of Olimpia Aldobrandini.
Double-ordered frame with plant and candelabra motifs, gilded in gouache with red bole.
Borghese Collection, mentioned for the first time in the 1790 inventory (Room III, no. 19); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, B, p. 23, n. 12. Purchase by the Italian state, 1902.
The first mention of the painting can be found in the Borghese Inventory of c. 1790, with an attribution to Giovanni Bellini. Platner (1842) had already expressed doubts about the autography of three male portraits attributed to Giambellino in the Galleria Borghese, however, he made no statement regarding the possible authorship of the paintings. Otto Mündler (1869) is credited with having traced the work back to the hand of Antonello da Messina in his edition of Burckhardt’s Cicero, putting forward the idea that it could probably be a self-portrait. In reality, as there are no compelling elements in favour of this thesis, it should instead be considered to be one of the numerous portraits the Sicilian painter made for merchants and members of the upper middle class during his stay in Venice, which lasted from 1475 to 1476. Apart from the typical garments of a Venetian patrician worn by the subject, there are eloquent similarities with some portraits painted by Antonello in those years, such as the examples in the Musée du Louvre and the Museo civico d’Arte Antica in Turin, both signed and dated 1475 and 1476 respectively.
Due to the Venetian context to which the painting must therefore be related, Crowe and Cavalcaselle (1871) argued that this portrait was one of the “two heads on two panels smaller than the original” mentioned by Marcantonio Michiel - that of Michele Vianello, to be exact - in Antonio Pasqualino’s house in 1532, “both made in the year 1475, as appears per the signature” (M. Michiel, Notizia d’opera di disegno nella prima metà del secolo XVI esistenti in Padova, Cremona, Milano, Pavia, Bergamo, Crema e Venezia, 1521-1543, edited by Gustavo Frizzoni, Bologna 1884, pp. 150-152). However, Crowe and Cavalcaselle explained that the reason that the painting in the Galleria Borghese had no signature or date was because the panel had been cut. Della Pergola (1955) rejects this, having seen no signs of such an intervention on the work as “the painted surface ends around half a centimetre higher than the panel, which is absolutely homogenous on all four sides and has certainly not been cut after it was painted”. It has been repeatedly suggested (Della Pergola 1955; Sricchia Santoro 1986, 2017; Lucco 2006; Bologna and De Melis, 2013) that the cartouche, recurring in many of Messina’s small-format paintings, could have been on the frame, as in the case of the Ecce Homo in the Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola in Genoa. However, the latter argument cannot be used to force the relationship between the testimony of the source and the identity of the effigy, which to this day remains unknown.
The fate of the panel before 1790 also remains to be clarified, although a number of hypotheses have been made in studies. Della Pergola’s (1955) thesis that the painting came into the collection through the marriage of Paolo Borghese and Olimpia Aldobrandini has been refuted or accepted with little conviction (Barbera 1998; Sricchia Santoro 1986, 2017; Tarissi de Jacobis, in D’Orazio 2002, pp. 104-105; Lucco 2006;) because the description in Olimpia’s inventory of 1682 does not correspond with our portrait and because, moreover, the bulk of the princess’s collection passed to her second-born son Giovanni Battista Pamphili (Tarissi de Jacobis, in D’Orazio 2002, pp. 104-105). Arbace (1993) does not abandon the idea of recognising Michele Vianello in this portrait, believing it to be the “beautiful head of the Missinese’’ purchased by Isabella d’Este after the Venetian’s death in 1506, later donated to her brother cardinal and archbishop Ippolito d’Este and passed to Pietro Aldobrandini, and then finally to the Borghese. This suggestion has been rejected (Tarissi de Jacobis, in D’Orazio 2002, pp. 104-105; Lucco 2006) since, if the painting had belonged to Enrico I’s son, Ippolito, upon the latter’s death in 1520, it would have been subject to inheritance issues that would not explain its possible identification with the work in Venice in 1532, signed and dated, as Michiel relates.
In any case, the painting is one of the best examples of the portraits made by Antonello in Venice. With the exception of some warping and some horizontal cracks, the panel is in good condition. One alteration that stands out are the highlights on the mantle that, executed in cinnabar, have taken on a grey colour due to oxidation, and appeared as green before the 2002 restoration, which fully restored the clarity of the work and also made the head covering of the subject easier to discern (Seracini, in D’Orazio 2002, pp. 108-113).
Although the difficulty in identifying the painting with the portrait of Michele Vianello has on several occasions even led some scholars to backdate the panel to the years prior to the artist’s stay in Venice (L. Venturi 1907; Longhi 1914; A. Venturi 1915; Bottari 1939; De Rinaldis 1949; Della Pergola 1950, 1954; De Logu 1958; Wright 1987), the painting does not hide its close relationship with other portraits from the mid-1970s, as mentioned at the beginning.
The man, portrayed here in a three-quarter profile against a dark background, looks at the observer, with a hint of a smile and an expression of veiled irony: Antonello’s ability to convey the psychological depth of the subject is admirable. The facial features are also distinguished by a skillful use of light. Similar to the portrait in the Louvre, light sculpts the facial volumes. The pulsating temples and soft flesh are defined by contrasts of light and shadow that extend to the underside of the chin, and small glimmers of light that bathe the lips, tip of the nose and the grooves extending from the caruncles to under the eyes, with an “astonishing ability to render the almost tactile sensation of physical matter”. (Marabottini 1981, p. 44). 44). The visual influences of Flemish painting that had interested Antonello in his youth are relaxed here to leave room for a more fluid and warmer pictorial draftsmanship that lingers “over a microscopic detail without falling into realism” (Longhi 1914): the eyebrows, for example, are now resolved with a less calibrated gesture, entirely comparable to the one that informs the same piece in the Portrait of a Man in Turin; the brushstroke acquires a more compendium-like narrative in the rendering of the lips, as well as in the shaded areas of the eyes and particularly the right one, which already seems to be exploring the path towards a reduction ending in volumetric absoluteness. Moreover, in the panel in the Galleria Borghese, there seems to be an incipient approach to prospective and formal synthesis that Antonello was soon to conquer - fully embracing Giovanni Bellini’s ideas - in the aforementioned portrait in Turin and the Annunciation at the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.
On the strength of these arguments, although it is difficult to establish the precise chronological order of the works made in Venice, it is perhaps reasonable to accept Lucco’s (2006) idea of preferring a date around 1476, in agreement with the impression of Crowe and Cavalcaselle (1912) who saw the Borghese portrait as “perhaps more Venetian in air” than the Louvre painting.