This portrait was displayed for the first time in nearly two centuries in the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing exhibition Renaissance Faces: van Eyck to Titian. Previously the painting had only been known from an 18th-century engraving, when it was wrongly attributed to Alessandro Allori.
Since its recent discovery it has been identified as the work of the Florentine artist Jacopo Pontormo, painted at the peak of his career. The portrait will hang in the Gallery’s 16th-century Italian painting rooms alongside portraits by Pontormo’s master Andrea del Sarto and his pupil Agnolo Bronzino.
The sitter is likely to be the 18–year-old Florentine aristocrat, Carlo Neroni. In his biography of the artist, Vasari mentions that Pontormo painted a portrait of Neroni at about the same time as he painted his ‘Portrait of a Halberdier’ (Getty Museum, Los Angeles) during the siege of Florence. This took place from October 1529 - August 1530 when Neroni would have been about 18, the age of the youth in the portrait.
Neroni’s elegant black costume probably alludes to his surname, ‘nero’ meaning black in Italian. With his right hand Neroni slips a note into his jacket. The address is illegible, but its location next to his heart and the ring on his finger suggest a connection with his marriage to a wealthy heiress Caterina Capponi in 1530.
Nonetheless, Neroni appears alert and fiercely defiant, ready to grasp the pommel of his sword in defence of his besieged city. His pose echoes Donatello’s sculpture of David, the biblical hero who was a symbol of the Florentine Republic. His expression recalls Michelangelo’s iconic statue of David, which then stood in Florence’s main square. With these loaded artistic references, Neroni is portrayed not just as a suitor but also as a quintessentially Florentine hero.