This bold picture is a good example of the portrait style of Venetian painter Alvise Vivarini. He was well known for describing his sitters' individual features in detail – here he has made sure to include the man’s wrinkles and the dark circles under his eyes. The man’s confident expression was the result of a lot of experimentation: technical evidence shows that Alvise repositioned the pupils several times.
Alvise borrowed a number of elements from Antonello da Messina’s portrait style, which was hugely popular in Venice at around this time. These included strong lighting, a dark background and the three-quarter angle of the sitter’s head and shoulders. He has also added the man’s hand, behind a marble ledge, details that came from fashionable Netherlandish painting. These make the portrait livelier and give the impression of a separate space behind the ledge.
A burly man stands behind a stone ledge. The artist has reproduced his features – dark, arched eyebrows, a deep frown line, thin lips and a jowly neck beneath a small, flat chin – with the greatest care.
This is Alvise’s only surviving signed work. On the ledge there’s an inscription painted on a piece of paper which, from its creases, looks like it has just been unfolded. The inscription gives the date the painting was made (1497) beneath the artist’s signature, written in Latin: ‘Alvise Vivarini of Murano made this’.
The ledge and the piece of paper (called a cartellino in Italy) came from Netherlandish portraits; we see it, for example, in van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man. The portrait is slightly larger than those usually commissioned for private purposes at this date, which suggests that it might have been made for a semi-public location. The man’s blue tunic is the colour that was worn by members of Venetian confraternities, so it may have been displayed in the headquarters of the group that he belonged to, known as a scuola.
Alvise has followed, to a degree, the style of Antonello da Messina, who developed a formula for painting portraits of men that became the height of fashion in Venice in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. As there was such a high demand for this kind of portraiture it’s not surprising that a number of Venetian painters took it up: Alvise was always eager to ensure that his paintings reflected the latest trends.
Antonello used elements of contemporary Netherlandish portraiture, including posing the sitter so that we see three-quarters of his head. This angle replaced the profile format drawn from coins and medals which had persisted until this time. Setting figures against a dark background and lighting features with a strong light from the left were also key elements of Antonello’s style, as was having the sitter look directly at the viewer. The sixteenth-century Venetian writer Marcantonio Michiel commented that Alvise’s portraits had ‘great strength and vivacity, especially in the eyes’. This portrait shows that Alvise was clearly preoccupied with creating a sense of comunication between this man and the viewer – technical evidence shows that he repositioned the pupils a number of times.
Alvise has strayed from Antonello’s formula by showing more than just the man’s head and shoulders: he has extended the torso, enabling him able to include the man’s right hand. This apparently minor detail was in fact itself a new invention in portraiture which also came from Netherlandish painting, where it was pioneered by Hans Memling. Alvise’s nod to this new and fashionable detail allows him to put space between the man and the stone ledge that he appears to be standing behind. This emphasises the illusion of the man’s real presence within the picture.
This portrait shows how, from the 1480s onwards, Alvise imitated more than Antonello’s format for portraits, like the manner in which he used paint to shape the face, relying on tonal variations, and broad areas of light and shade to define its contours, rather than lines.
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