Portrait of a Gentleman (Iacopo Sannazaro?)

c. 1514–1518
canvas; 85.7 × 72.7 cm
London, Royal Collection Trust / HM Queen Elisabeth II, 407190

This painting was bought from the Amsterdam merchant Jan van Reynst, by the Dutch government as a gift for King Charles I of England. Attributed in the royal inventories to Titian or Giorgione, it was ascribed to Vecellio by Gronau (1904, pp. 43, 279; cf. Wethey 1971, p. 138). The gentleman, shown holding a small book in his right hand, was identified in the nineteenth century as Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, following the even more implausible suggestions of Boccaccio or Pietro Aretino. In 1895 the name of Iacopo Sannazaro was put forward on the strength of the discovery of an ancient copy (Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery) bearing the inscription “Sincerus Sannazarius”, the poet’s pseudonym in humanist circles. This appears highly speculative given that Sannazaro was born in 1458 and would have been older than the man portrayed in the painting in England, generally dated to 1515–1520 (Whitaker 2007, p. 98; Barreto 2012, pp. 19–23; Agosti 2013, pp. 193–205). A further theory has recently been advanced suggesting that the painting represents an idealised portrait of the Neapolitan poet (Shearman 1983, pp. 251–253, no. 270; Pedrocco 2000, p. 124). The portrait seems to be a sort of youthful version of an earlier likeness of Sannazaro, a portrait attributed to the Venetian artist Giovanni Paolo Degli Agostini, which is now in New orleans (Shapley 1968, p. 51). This in turn might derive from the portrait “dal natural insino al cinto” (from the face to the waist) that Marcantonio Michiel remembers having admired in the poet’s home in Naples in a famous letter sent to the humanist Pietro Summonte in 1524 (Nicolini 1925, pp. 50–52, 163–164, 249–250). This is perhaps the original of a copy painted by Sebastiano del Piombo that Pietro Bembo had in his home in Padua (Gasparotto 2013b, p. 57). Titian seems to seize the moment the young gentleman has paused in his reading, a splendid example of the new figure of the “silent” reader made popular by Aldus Manutius’s famous editions of Latin and Italian poems in octavo format, the most immediate precedent for which is Young Man with a Green Book attributed to Giorgione (San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum) (A. Ballarin, in Piero Bembo 2013, pp. 147–150, no. 2.8).

Sergio Momesso