Who’s That? Let’s Play Art Detective

Recently a reader asked if I could help identify a painting of an unknown lady. The woman in the picture bore many of the hallmarks of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, but I could not be sure that it was her. I also, rather cheekily, disagreed with an expert who had previously looked at the painting and concluded that it was 17th century, when to my eye it looked more like a 19th century Elizabethan Revival painting, designed to evoke the Tudor era for the purposes of interior decoration. I will always defer to an actual art expert of course, as I sit back and scoff in my big leather armchair, but in my response I had to explain to my interlocutor that it is often very difficult for any art historian to figure out who is being represented in an older work of art, unless the sitter’s identity has been clearly marked or documented.

Today being the birthday of Jacopo “Tintoretto” Comin (1518-1594), it seems appropriate to select a work by this Venetian Old Master painter to illustrate just how difficult identification in art can be. The painting I’ve chosen is artistically interesting, particularly for those of you interested in military history, but as we shall see we often can’t answer the question, “Who’s that?” – even in the case of an artist as famous as Tintoretto.

The portrait shown below dates from about 1555-56, and is in the collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. It depicts a gentleman in his 30’s or 40’s with a slightly reddish, forked beard, wearing steel armor with gold decoration, who is standing before an open window in a palace. In the background, a Venetian galley and another ship are heading out to sea under stormy skies. At the base of the column on the right we can see part of a date, but the picture appears to have been trimmed down slightly, so we can’t be sure of the exact number written there.

One possible reading of this painting by art experts, including the Kunsthistoriches Museum, is that the date on the column originally read “1540”. In looking at the historical record of what was going on in Venice at the time, this date could mean that the painting was related to the signing of a peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice in that year, which brought to an end what was known as the Third Ottoman-Venetian War (1537-1540). However as this treaty marked a humiliating defeat for Venice at the time, this hypothesis seems unlikely to me.

More likely – said the armchair historian – this painting has something to do with the founding in 1550 of the “Fanti da Mar”, the Venetian Marines Infantry Corps. They came to be as a reaction against the military losses that Venice had been suffering at the hands of the Turks during much of the 1500’s. Interestingly enough, the Fanti da Mar later became the San Marco Regiment, which itself was the foundation for the modern-day Italian Marines.

The armor depicted in the painting is that traditionally worn by commanders of the Fanti da Mar at the time, as shown in a later painting by Tintoretto of Sebastiano Venier, commander of the Venetian Marines at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and future Doge of Venice. This portrait cannot be of Venier himself however, since at the time it was supposedly painted he was already in his 60’s. Moreover, at this point he was not yet commanding the Venetian Marines. 

A more likely candidate would be the condottieri (mercenary) Astorre Il Baglioni (1526-1571), who was hired by Venice in 1556 to fortify the Venetian mainland against the Turks and made Governor of Verona. That would make him exactly the right age and general profession for this picture, and a somewhat crude portrait of Baglioni from this time shows a man in his 40’s with a distinctive, receding hairline, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait. Another portrait of Baglioni much later in life shows him with a forked beard, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait, but now gray with age.

However, as fascinating as this speculation is, there is a more fundamental problem with this identification. Although Baglioni was a military man, he does not appear to have been a member of the Venetian Marines, let alone a commander of them. So unless new research shows up indicating that he was made a Marine Corps commander, we are left at a dead end with this line of inquiry, as far as identification of the subject is concerned.

Art appreciation involves not just looking at images of famous kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, but rather about staring into the eyes of people from long ago who became successful or well-regarded enough in their profession to have their picture painted. Before the dawn of photography, painting, sculpture, and engraving was how these people were commemorated for their contemporaries and for future generations. Even with all of our knowledge, resources, and technology, there are many great, portraits of unidentified people from the past like bankers and bakers, soldiers and scholars, and unknown Venetian Marines, whom we may never be able to conclusively identify. But the detective work that goes into trying to identify them is endlessly fascinating.

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2 thoughts on “Who’s That? Let’s Play Art Detective

  1. To make matters worse, just because the painting is older doesn’t mean it wasn’t just a vanity commission. Perhaps some older, successful businessman (Venice had plenty) trying to lay claim to a forged personal history. Because a painting survived isn’t reason enough to value it’s subject.

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