Lombardy 1470 /1510
Portrait of a gentleman (Cesare Borgia?)
[Ritratto di gentiluomo (Cesare Borgia?)] c.1513
oil on wood panel
58.1 (h) x 48.2 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866
This romantic portrait is one of the most famous paintings from the collection of Count Guglielmo Lochis, where for many generations it was thought to be a portrait by Giorgione of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) Duke of Valentino and flamboyant illegitimate son of the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI. The attribution to Altobello Melone was first made in 1871 by Giovanni Morelli’s rivals, Crowe and Cavalcaselle. It was confirmed in 1955 by Mina Gregori, who compared the portrait in eccentric style to Melone’s The road to Emmaus. The identity of the sitter is far from certain, with the proposed date of the work some years after Cesare’s death—but interpretations of Cesare Borgia are habitually based on this image, and actors who play the part of Cesare style their appearance on this portrait.
Writers and poets have loved the dramatic disturbed background with the blue expressionistic storm. The agitated sky was thought to be an allusion to the soul of Cesare who was a legend in his own lifetime; and characterised by Machiavelli in The Prince as someone who was allowed to be above morality. There is something surreal about the imagery. In the background to the left small figures of a man and a woman are beaten by the wind, their faces covered by drapery to ward off the tempest; while from the base of the hollow treetrunk a long branch emerges, a new tree sprouting.
Some three hundred years after this portrait was painted the Borgia family ordered a copy from Pelagio Pelagi, in the belief that the painting represented their ancestor Cesare. The Bergamo portrait and the copy were discussed at some length by Antoine-Claude Pasquin, who wrote under the pseudonym Valéry, in the edition of his travel guide Voyages in Italy, published in 1835. Valéry interpreted the figures in the background as victims of Borgia violence. The woman he took to be a metaphor for the women of Capua who hid in a tower when the city was sacked by Borgia’s army on 24 July 1501—occasioned by the fact that Frederick of Aragon had refused his daughter Carlotta to be Cesare’s bride. In revenge, it was said that Cesare considered the women of Capua attentively and chose forty of the most beautiful for his harem at Rome. Valéry is likely to have invented the story behind the portrait believing that Cesare Borgia acted according to his legendary sexual appetite. The Pelagi copy made for the Borgia family eliminated the prominent fist and the background figures, as if to disarm Cesare and make him respectable, even anodyne if that were possible.
Melone has adopted a Titianesque composition for this most compelling portrait of a man, traditionally said to be Cesare Borgia, in which the background is an emblem of the sitter’s soul. Whoever the sitter, his portrait commands our attention—with his fiery expression, his gloved fist, and the windy landscape suggestive of perilous destiny.
J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle, A history of painting in Northern Italy, London: John Murray, 1871, p. 453.
Altobello Melone, The road to Emmaus c.1516–1517, National Gallery, London: see Mina Gregori, ‘Altobello, il Romanino e il cinquecento cremonese’, Paragone, no. 69, 1955, pp. 9-10, 14-15.
Guglielmo Lochis, La pinacoteca e la villa Lochis alla Crocetta di Mozzo presso Bergamo con notizie biografiche degli autori dei quadri, Bergamo: Tipografia Natali, 1858, p. 22.
Pelagio Pelagi (1775–1860).
M. Valéry, Voyages historiques et littéraires en Italie pendant les années 1826, 1827 et 1828; ou, L’indicateur italien, Brussels: Louis Hauman et Compagnie 1835, pp. 54, 77.