A Master’s Portrait of His Friend

It has now been a week since this blog switched to a domain name and hosting with WordPress, and so far I am satisfied with the change; I have been receiving many comments and compliments from my readers, as well as some suggestions for improvements which are being considered. Among these was a suggestion by my friend and fellow blogger Margaret Perry over at Ten Thousand Places that I ought to write a little bit about the Raphael portrait of this blog’s patron, Count Baldassare Castiglione, a section of which serves not only as the banner background but also to establish the color scheme for these pages. I reproduced the portrait for the first post at this new location, but I am happy to tell my readers a little bit more about it.

Although the painting is not dated, in terms of Raphael’s stylistic development and because of the fact that Castiglione is dressed in velvet and fur, the piece is believed to date from the winter of 1514-1515, when Castiglione was serving as Ambassador of the Duke of Urbino to the Holy See.  At this point Castiglione had already been friends with Raphael for about a decade.  Art historians believe the two first met around 1504, when Castiglione was engaging in diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Duchy of Urbino, and Raphael was a young court painter to the Duke.  However, their friendship really blossomed in Rome, and its importance to art history is highly significant.

Following subsequent travels by both men after their first acquaintance in Urbino, they were no doubt pleased to run into each other again in Rome, while great artistic projects and cultural debates were taking place all over the Eternal City.  Raphael had arrived there in 1508 from Florence, seeking a Papal commission.  He received that of the famous Stanze della Signatura, the private apartments of Pope Julius II. Those familiar with these frescoes are aware that the painter’s style developed quite rapidly as he went along, moving from the safe, statically ethereal to the majestic and self-confident.  Compare the “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” of 1508-1509 to the legendary “School of Athens” painted at the end of 1509: the former is a capable, but unremarkable piece of painting. The latter is one of the most famous paintings ever created, still hanging, in reproduction, in university philosophy departments all over the world.

While the influences of both Da Vinci and Michelangelo are well-known with respect to his artistic development, it is also believed that Raphael received a great deal of advice from Castiglione, who was well-read in the classics and had been trained as a humanist scholar and writer . The two were known to visit archaeological excavation sites in and around Rome together, where they would discuss the historic significance of the structures, but also their function, symbolism and design.  From these excursions and the tutelage of his friend on Greek and Roman history, poetry, philosophy, and so on, as well as the influences he was absorbing from other artists working in Rome, there was a very visible shift in Raphael’s style as he began to move in the direction of greater realism, proportion, and solidity.  Castiglione was therefore not only a friend but a kind of older brother to the painter, and it is said that the figure of Zoroaster in the “School of Athens” – a bearded man in a turban who along with two others is shown having a conversation with Raphael in the lower right corner of the fresco – is Castiglione himself.

In the panel portrait of a bearded, turbaned Castiglione that inspires the look of this blog, Raphael gives us a sensitive, lifelike image of his friend – one which, in a letter to his wife, Castiglione described as rather hauntingly lifelike.  At the time it is believed that the picture was painted Castiglione was only 36-37 years old, though his portrait shows us a man who to our modern eye looks rather older than that.  Raphael himself was about 32-33 years old, but we know from his self-portraits both before and after this painting that he maintained a very youthful appearance throughout his relatively short life.

There has been some criticism that the portrait was actually painted by Raphael’s workshop, albeit with his hand guiding the assistants here and there, based on a 1516 letter from the humanist poet Pietro Cardinal Bembo to Bernardo Cardinal Bibbiena, both friends of Castiglione and of Raphael, suggesting this to have been the case. This seems to me to be nonsense. Given their close friendship and the fact that during the winter of 1514-1515 Castiglione and Raphael probably met almost every day, it would be hard to imagine that Castiglione would have been satisfied with a workshop production, or that Raphael would give such a good friend an object that was not painted entirely or primarily by his hand.

Moreover, there could be two possible reasons for the aforementioned letter. Although they were friends, Cardinal Bembo and Count Castiglione were known to have had a bit of a rivalry going with respect to art collecting, and so Cardinal Bembo may have had an ulterior motive in writing to Cardinal Bibbiena about the Castiglione portrait to try to puff up the importance of his own collection. In addition, Raphael in fact painted portraits of all three men during their lifetimes. That of Cardinal Bembo is from early in Raphael’s career and it is said to be overly idealized. That of Cardinal Bibbiena, painted c. 1516 and now in the Pitti in Florence, is almost universally believed to be only partially by Raphael, with the remainder completed by his workshop. The lines and contours of the face in particular are more harsh and less well-accomplished than in Raphael’s other paintings of the time. Could it be that Cardinal Bembo is trying to calm Cardinal Bibbiena down because his portrait was not as nice as Castiglione’s?

Turning our attention back to the Count’s portrait, at the time it is believed to have been painted Castiglione had not yet been to Spain; his first diplomatic posting there took place in 1524, and the “Book of the Courtier” followed in 1528. In that book, as I have written about previously, Castiglione often praises the fashion of the Spanish court, which was far more restrained in palette than the Italian and French courts of the day. It is clear from Raphael’s portrait that Castiglione himself was already of like mind long before he went to Madrid.  It would be fair to say that the man was a good match for the job.

After so many years currying favor in Italy, it must have felt for Castiglione to be something like a homecoming when he arrived in Spain. Here were serious, thoughtful, devout people whose personal style reflected their attitude toward life. On the golden-brown plains of Castile and among the perennially-black-clad Spaniards, mixing with the courtiers who ruled the most powerful empire in Europe, Castiglione no doubt felt a kind of kinship which he would not have felt in more glittering, colorful European courts of the day, like that of François I. At the time Raphael painted him, several years earlier, Castiglione was already being drawn, perhaps unknowingly, into a kind of Hispanophilia; indeed, the Count would ultimately die not in his native Italy, but rather in the Spanish city of Toledo in 1529.

The importance of Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione lies not just in its documentation of the friendship of these two great men, but also in its significance to art history. The sombre tones and the immediacy of the picture show us a man who is listening attentively and thoughtfully to our conversation and seems about to respond, rather than someone so far away and above us that we can have no hope of gaining his ear. This image had a tremendous impact on later portrait painters from Rubens to Velázquez and beyond, and for very good reason. It masterfully celebrates intelligence, good taste, and good manners so that, even if we did not know the identity of the sitter, these qualities would be readily apparent to any sensitive observer.

Detail of the “Portrait of Count Baldassare Castiglione” by Raphael (c.1514-1515)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

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