“He’s a handsome man” said an older woman with a thick New York accent standing next to me. Indeed he is.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has dedicated an entire room to a prized portrait painted by Diego Velázquez titled “Duke Francesco I d’Este” (1638), on loan from the Galleria Estense in Modena, Italy. In May of 2012, Modena and the surrounding area suffered massive damage due to a major earthquake, and many cultural artifacts and buildings were lost. Keith Christiansen, the Met’s chairman of European paintings, said the museum is partnering with the Galleria Estense to spread more awareness regarding this tragedy by exhibiting this saved portrait, an identifying object in their collection. The Galleria holds works from northern Italian masters, but this portrait is especially prized as it was the Duke who helped amass several key pieces in the collection. He was responsible for the rich artistic heritage housed in the Galleria today.
I was able to corner the director of the Galleria Estense, Davide Gasparotto, who told me there are only two Velázquez paintings in Italy, the other is in Rome. It is an important picture on several levels. According to Gasparotto, the portrait is an astonishing likeness of the Duke. It’s a stunning painting; his gaze warm but controlled, his pose relaxed in regal, military dress. The red sash is also dominant in the picture. While in Spain, Habsburg King Philip IV awarded the Order of the Golden Fleece to the Duke, which hangs below the sash. The medallion glimmers and the sash seems to have movement across the Duke’s chest. I asked Gasparotto if the Italians ever wore these red sashes, and he explained that it is more in line with Spanish tradition. We walked up to the painting and he pointed to the medallion, “you see, it is very Impressionistic.”
I am currently reading Examining Velázquez, a book by conservators Gridley McKim-Smith, Richard Newman, and Greta Andersen-Bergdoll. They note two important trips to Venice by Velázquez. The first was in 1629; the second in 1649. This painting was produced between those two visits. Velázquez’s influences are from the northern Italian painters: Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Apparently the Habsburgs collected Titians “with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession.” For me, looking at the quickness of light brush strokes across the Duke’s red sash and the dabble of yellow on the medallion are clear signs of that influence, however Velázquez reduced his glazing technique and developed a faster application which gives his work more vibrant energy.
The painting was executed while the Duke was visiting Spain on a diplomatic journey during the bloody and costly Thirty Years War between Spain and France. King Philip IV of Spain gave the red carpet treatment to the Duke and requested that his court painter, Velázquez, create a grand equestrian portrait. The artist, however, was slow to execute, and the grand portrait was never completed. Instead, this more intimate portrait was painted quickly from life. Diplomatic ties were tenuous, as Modena was vulnerable and the Duke never received the requested protection needed from Spain, so Modena was forced to side with the French during the final years of the war. The portrait was not immediately given to the Italians, but eventually sent over.
Velázquez visited Modena on his second journey to Italy. He was on an art and antiquity shopping spree for the royal palaces in Madrid. According to Gasparotto, the Duke had not forgotten about his failed diplomatic mission with King Philip IV, and held a grudge. Velázquez was banned from viewing the Duke’s collection and his aides gave the excuse that they had simply “lost the keys.” A deliciously wicked snub.
In looking at royal portraits, I’m often interested in the back story. Why and for whom? Some were used for propaganda, others to arrange marriages between families. It was the court painter’s job to fulfill the wishes of the monarchy, so most of the content was often requested. Tracking the history of these royal portraits provide a deeper story to the real ongoings within the court and relations with neighboring countries.
Velázquez’s “Portrait of Francesco I d’Este” is one view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 14.
Davide Gasparetto, Stefano Casciu and Xavier Salomon will discuss the Galleria Estense collection and heritage of Modena, as well as this special portrait, in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at The Met on Saturday, April 20th from 3–4:30pm.