Van Dyck's portrait of Cesare Alessandro Scaglia (1592 - 1641) is a stately and enduring image of a man who was familiar with the corridors of power and actively involved in European politics in the first half of the 17th century. Scaglia's skills as a diplomat were highly esteemed by the likes of Richelieu and Rubens; the latter described him as 'a man of the keenest intellect'. Scaglia served the Dukes of Savoy as ambassador to Rome, Paris and London. He also served Philip IV of Spain in London and was on the Spanish payroll until 1636. His pro-Spanish stance put him at odds with the new Duke of Savoy, Vittorio Amadeo (from 1630-37), and led Scaglia to move to the Spanish Netherlands, living first in Brussels and then in Antwerp where Van Dyck painted this portrait, and where Scaglia died.
Scaglia always had an active interest in art. As a young man he collected antiquities for the House of Savoy, and he is known to have intervened for Charles I on a Jordaens commission for a ceiling for the Queen's House at Greenwich. Scaglia's collection included at least five Van Dycks as well as paintings by Tempesta and Snijers. From his surviving drawings we know that Van Dyck considered presenting Scaglia enthroned but then arrived at the idea of posing him like an ancient statue leaning against his pedestal, and only his delicate shoe and elegant hands distract us from his stately scrutiny. He appears with a dark aura or 'halo' behind his head. Technical examination has shown that it was Van Dyck's habit to block in a dark background to his head study, and it is this contrasting ground that is now emerging through.