(Cremona, 1524 - 1587)
Portrait of a man pointing at a Hebrew tablet
Oil on canvas
39 ½ x 32 1/8 inches
(100.4 x 81.6 cm)
Once lent to the Narodni Galerie, Prague (from labels on the verso)
With Moretti Fine Art Ltd., London
Sale, Sotheby’s, New York, January 27, 2011, lot 126 (as by Antonio Campi), unsold
Private Collection, United Kingdom
This portrait is a remarkable survivor of Jewish culture and life in sixteenth-century Italy. While its full significance is yet to be understood, this Portrait of a Man is striking not only for its considerable pictorial quality, but from its rare iconography. The subject is a young bearded man of about thirty elegantly, if severely, dressed in a black doublet, over which he wears a high-collared black cloak. His dress is complemented by a matching berretto as he sits before a table on which a stone tablet rests, one carved at top with volute borders and inscribed with Hebrew lettering. While Hebrew inscriptions, usually diminutively placed, may appear in Italian 15th and 16th century religious paintings, the prominent presence of one in a secular portrait is unusual, if not unique.
The content of the inscription itself makes the portrait all the more extraordinary. The elegantly rendered Hebrew letters (inverted so that the viewer can read them) state Torat Moshe Emet or “the Torah (or Law) of Moses is the Truth.” Such a bold statement can only have had great personal significance to the sitter and there can be little doubt that he was a member of one of the Jewish communities in North Italy, most likely Cremona, the artist’s home for most of his life. The presence of a diamond ring on the right pinky finger of the sitter must have further significance. It might suggest the sitter’s profession, perhaps a goldsmith, his name, or simply an attribute of his distinction or wealth.
It has been remarked that the subject of the portrait rests his right hand near the last word of the inscription, with two elegant fingers placed above the last two letters of the word Emet (Truth). Those two characters –Mem and Tav—together form the word Met, or “Death.” It is difficult to know whether this arrangement of the hand has any import other than aesthetic. But if there is some kind of coded meaning, it might suggest that the present work is a commemorative portrait of one who has died young, an idea underscored by the memorializing associations of a stone tablet. Militating against such a hypothesis is the enlivened manner of the subject, who engages with the viewer with an almost questioning expression.
The painting, which is not signed, has been convincingly attributed to the Cremonese artist Antonio Campi on stylistic grounds. Campi trained under his older brother Giulio, with whom he shared a studio and collaborated on several projects before the two formally ended their partnership in 1560 and commenced independent careers. That year Antonio was documented in Milan, painting a Resurrection for the Church of Santa Maria presso San Celso, which remains in the church. In the years following he worked on various commissions, both in Milan and Cremona, including several for the powerful Archbishop of Milan, St. Carlo Borromeo. Together with his elder brother Giulio and his younger brother Vincenzo, as well as independently, Antonio undertook a variety of ecclesiastical and domestic projects throughout Northern Italy – in Lodi, in Meda, Milan, Piacenza, and Crema. However, the focus of his activity remained Milan and his native Cremona, where he died in 1587. As well as being a painter Antonio was known as an architect, sculptor, and writer. His history of his city, Cremona Fedelissima Città, was published in 1582 and includes portraits, maps, and biographies of notable figures. Of great interest to us are the large foldout maps of Cremona that appear on page 81 and pages 130-1. Drawn by Antonio, they were engraved by David de Laude (David da Lodi) and represent the earliest known prints made by a Jewish engraver in Italy. Proudly signed “David de Laude Hebreus Cremonensis,” this collaboration attests to the artistic cooperation and tolerance that existed in Cremona at that time.
In fact the first document of Jewish presence in Cremona appears in the year 1400, when a deed records the purchase of property, probably for the establishment of a Hebrew cemetery, as Jews were prohibited from personally owning real estate. Through the fifteenth and sixteenth century the community grew in number and vitality with members involved in banking, textile production, medicine, publishing, farming, and wood harvesting. This last occupation is especially notable as it is recorded that the Jewish Bachi family supplied wood from the Val Seriana to Gasparo da Salò (1542-1609), known as one of the first makers of the modern violin.
Tolerance for Italian Jews waned following the Council of Trent and though a ghetto was proposed for Cremona in 1580, none was ever established. However, the city was part of the Duchy of Milan, then under Spanish rule, and in 1597 Jews were formally expelled from its territory at the direction of King Phillip II of Spain. This portrait is thus a precious record of a brief time of relative social, religious, and artistic harmony for its Jewish subject and for his community.
 On the history of Jews in Cremona, see Franco Bontempi, Storia delle comunità ebraiche a Cremona e nella sua provincia [Italy] 2002; Carlo Bonetti, Gli ebrei a Cremona 1278-1630 (Cremona 1917; repr. Bologna 1982); and the online source: Samuel Kurinsky and Francisco Bontempi, “Jewish History from the Archives of Florence and Cremona; Part II: Cremona” (Hebrew History Federation, Fact Paper 38-II), available here.