(Treviso 1500 – 1571 Venice)


Portrait of a Man


Oil on canvas

109 x 94.5 cm

This handsome and imposing male portrait, although lacking any known provenance or traditional attribution, is clearly Venetian (or at least, from the Venetian mainland), and clearly dates from the second quarter of the sixteenth century. A fragmentary inscription on the reverse, deciperable as “Gio. Bar”, suggests that at some date in the past the author was identified as Giorgione, whose family name was believed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be Barbarella; for many reasons, however, this attribution may be safely discounted. Recent cleaninghas nevertheless also revealed the portrait to be a work of considerable importance, because of both the evidently high social status of the sitter and the high quality of the pictorial handling.


Although anonymous male portraits in monochromatic costumes can be notoriously difficult to attribute, it is my opinion, on the basis both of photographs and of examination of the original in April 2013, that this is the work of the distinguished Venice-based painter Paris Bordone. I have considered alternative attributions, for example to the Trevigian Francesco Beccaruzzi, or to stylistically related painters working in Verona, but I find none of them satisfactory.Particularly characteristic of Bordone is the flesh painting, in which cold, white areas with bluish shadows are contrasted with flushes of crimson, almost like the rouge of theatrical make-up. While the flesh is soft and somewhat puffy, the pose is rigid, and lacks the mobile elegance found in the portraits of the leading Venetian painter of the day, Bordone’s master Titian. Similarly, a breadth of handling in some areas is combined with a meticulous treatment of ornament, as in the tiny dots executed with the tip of the brush used to evoke the elaborate needlework of the white shirt. Equally characteristic of Bordone – although in this case also of most of his Venetian contemporaries – are the various pentimenti visible in the radiographs made during the recent conservation.  Most striking is the fact that originally the eyes seem to have been looking off to the right, instead of out at the spectator, as they do now.


Bordone’s biography may be summarised as follows (1).Born in Treviso, he came to Venice as a child and received his artistic education under Titian. During his earlier career, Paris practised above all as a painter of religious subjects, specialising in representations of the Virgin and Child informally seated with saints in a landscape, as well as altarpieces, most of which were commissioned for towns on the Venetian terraferma. The climax of this earlier, Titianesque period was reached with the large-scale narrative canvas of the Fisherman delivering the Ring (Venice, Accademia), painted for the Scuola di San Marco in Venice, and datable on external evidence to 1534-1535. According to Vasari (whose biography of the painter is included within that of Titian in the Lives of the Artists of 1568), Bordone went to the court of Francis I of France at Fontainebleau in 1538, where he painted a Venus and Cupid for the bedchamber of the Duc de Guise and a Jupiter and Io for his brother the Cardinal of Lorraine; and as Vasari also mentions, this success resulted in further commissions, many of them similarly involving mythological and erotic subjects, from important foreign patrons, including the King of Poland, the Fugger family of Augsburg, Ottaviano Grimaldi of Genoa, and Carlo da Rho of Milan. There is good circumstantial evidence to date the painter’s stay in Milan, and the works for Carlo da Rhoto 1548-1551. During the 1550s Bordone continued to enjoy a high reputation for his mythologies, but by the last decade of his life he seems to have reverted to a mainly religious repertoire, and painted a number of altarpieces, of an increasingly feeble quality, for churches in and around his native Treviso.


While Bordone’s distinctive personal style presents few problems of attribution, his chronology remains difficult to plot precisely, especially during the central, most explicitly Mannerist period of his career. Convincingly identifying the Jupiter and Io for the Cardinal of Lorraine with the picture now in the Konstmuseum, Göteborg, Canova (1964) argued that Vasari must have been mistaken in dating the French trip to 1538, and that Bordone in fact went twenty years later, during the brief reign of Francis II (1559-1560), when a different generation of Guise brothers, again a duke and a cardinal, were dominant at the French court. Compared with the painter’s work of the 1540s, the Göteborg picture shows a definite schematisation and hardening simplification of effects of light and texture, in a way that provides a valuable illustration of his late style.


Bordone also painted a considerable quantity of portraits. Many of these represent women in a state of undress, and were clearly intended as eroticised beauties rather than as representations of real, recognisable people. But his extant oeuvre also includes several male portraits, datable to different phases of his career, and emphasising instead the sitter’s high social status by means of luxurious costume and dignified accessories. Several more are listed by Vasari (and also by the painter’s seventeenth-century biographer, Carlo Ridolfi), including three of noblemen from the painter’s native city of Treviso, by the names of Alberto Onigo, Marco Seravalle, and Francesco da Quer. None of these have hitherto been identified with extant works, but the possiblilty that the present portrait represents Marco Seravalle will be explored further below.


In the absence of any inscription, the most reliable guide to the date of the portrait is provided by the costume. The sitter wears a clearly expensive robe of black silk, decorated with braid at the cuffs and down the sleeves. His white shirt is embroidered at the collar and cuffs, and over his robe he wears a luxurious fur cloak. In his left had he holds a pair of soft leather gloves, a standard accessory of a gentleman, and round his neck he wears a double gold chain. The details most responsive to changing fashions are the form of the upper sleeve and the position of the neckline. From the 1520s onwards voluminous upper sleeves, which in the first two decades of the sixteenth century came almost down to the wrist, gradually retreated up the arm to balloon above the elbow by the end of the decade, before giving way to a continous, close-fitting sleeve by the end of the 1530s. Consistent with this indication of a dating of the present portrait to c. 1530-32 is the neckline which is now much higher than it was before about 1520, but which is not yet as high as it was soon to become. Finally, the sitter wears his hair short, as was still unusual before c. 1525, but which became the norm after the emperor Charles V cut his hair at the time of his coronation in Bologna in 1530.


Further evidence that the portrait was painted at the beginning of the 1530s is provided by consideration of its place in the general evolution of Venetian portraiture of the period under the leadership of Titian, as well as in the development of Bordon’s own portraits. An obvious precedent for the use of the casually elegant accessory of the gloves is provided by Titian’s famous Man with a Glove of c. 1524-5 (Paris, Louvre), in which the sitter similarly wears black silk with a contrasting white shirt, and is seen in three-quarter length against a neutral background. Another precedent, especially for the forceful physical presence of Bordon’s figure, may be recognised in Titian’s Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (lost; copy in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), also of c. 1524-5– although in this case, in keeping with the sitter’s princely status, the costume is richer and more colourful. In his earlier career, Bordone followed Titian’s compositional innovations at a distance of a few years: in his Portrait of a Man in Munich (Alte Pinakothek), for example, inscribed with the date 1523, the figure is still cut at waist-level by a foregound ledge, or sill, or a type that Titian had long since abandoned. A similar ledge is placed in the lower foregound of the so-called Venetian Lovers (Milan, Brera), datable to a year or two later. By the time of the Man with a Fur Collar (Florence, Uffizi) of c. 1528, the device has been eliminated, extending the figure to thigh length; the hairstyle and the neckline, however, indicate that this work somewhat precedes the present portrait, which is also slightly longer in format. A good point of chronological reference is provided, in fact, by the Nikolaus Körbler (Vienna, Liechtenstein Museum), which is dated 1532, and in which the costume shows similarly full upper sleeves. But the Körbler already shows a development away from the Titianesque robustness and sensuousness evident in the present portrait towards Bordon’s more linear, elongated and abstract style of the 1540s, as represented by the Thomas Stachel (Paris, Louvre), which is dated 1540.


Of the various male portraits by Bordone mentioned by Vasari, several can be eliminated as candidates for the present work, either because they depicted clerics, or on grounds of chronology. For example, the lost portrait of his Milanese patron, Carlo da Rho, was almost certainly painted in 1548-51, contemporaneously with the other paintings for him; while two of the three Trevigian sitters, Franceso da Quer and Alberto Onigo, were born in 1520 and 1535 respectively, and so would have been two young to have sat for the present portrait (2).By contrast, the third Trevigian sitter, Marco Serravalle,  is not implausible as a candidate. This person is certainly identical with the “noble citizen of Treviso, lord Marco de Seravalle, son of the late Trevigian nobleman Giovanni”, who was born in 1499 and who is documented as standing as a legal witness on behalf of the painter in Treviso in April 1527(3).Symptomatic of his civic eminence is the fact that three decades later, in 1556, he led the delegation appointed to welcome Bona Sforza, queen of Poland, on her passing visit to Treviso.  In favour of the identification of the sitter as this Serravalle are: first, the proximity of this date of his association with the painter to the probable date of the portrait;second, the fact that in 1530-2 he would have been in his early thirties; and third, the appropriateness of his costume to a provincial nobleman. Of course, the identification remains far from certain, since Bordone clearly painted a number of portraits not mentioned by Vasari or any other early source. Nevertheless it would probably be worth undertaking research in the archives of Treviso to see whether any further biographical information about Seravalle could be convincingly matched the visual evidence of the portrait. And further evidence that the sitter is Trevigian is implied by the formal resemblance of the portrait to a Portrait of a Man with an Apple of c. 1530-5 in the Museo Civico, Treviso, formerly regarded as a self portrait by Bordone, but now more plausibly attributed to one of his Trevigian followers, either Lodovico Fiumicelli or Francesco Beccaruzzi (4).




1      The standard monograph on the painter remains Giordana Canova, Paris Bordon, Venice, 1964. A recent analysis of his portraits is provided by Alexandra Jackson, Not without Honour: Paris Bordon in sixteenth-century Venice and beyond, PhD dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 2005, pp. 168-215.

2      L. Bailo and G. Biscaro, Della Vita e della Opere di Paris Bordon, Treviso, 1900, p. 23.

3      “…presentibus nobili et cive Tarvisino domino Marco de Seravalle quondam nobilis Tarvisini domini Ioanis…” SeeBailo and Biscaro, 1900, pp. 19, 32, 87; Paris Bordon (catalogue of the exhibition, Treviso, Palazzo dei Trecento), Milan, 1964, p. 125.

4      See respectively Mauro Lucco, Dipinti e Sculture del Museo di Treviso, Bologna, 1980, tavola XXXI; Giorgio Fozzaluzza, “Profilo di Francesco Beccaruzzi”, Arte Veneta, XXXV, 1981, p. 78.


Peter Humfrey

St Andrews, 5 May 2013