In late fifteenth-century Venice, a striking style of portraiture – derived from Netherlandish portraiture – was being popularised in the city by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina; this is a typical example of it. The dark background, the three-quarter pose and the sharp lighting used here were key features of the style.
Here, Bonsignori has very closely observed the old man’s unique features, including his distinctive nose and ear, and his wrinkles. Drawing was very important in Bonsignori’s artistic process; his style drew upon the precision of Mantegna, an artist he knew. For this portrait, he made a detailed drawing to use as a guide, which he transferred to the panel like a tracing. There is also a surviving preparatory study for the portrait in the Albertina Museum, Vienna.
In late fifteenth-century Venice, a striking style of portraiture derived from Netherlandish examples was being popularised in the city by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina; this is a typical example of it. Its key elements – the dark background, the three-quarter pose and the sharp lighting – are found here.
The cartellino (the painted scrap of paper attached to the green stone ledge) has been signed and dated by Francesco Bonsignori. We can‘t be sure who this old man is, but the portrait of him is distinctive, both for the observation of his features and for the way that his distant gaze encourages us to imagine what he might be thinking. Bonsignori has, unusually, included a detailed study of the man’s ear. In most portraits like this the ear was covered by a hat or hair, but he seems to enjoy its shell-like curves and fleshy, round lobe. The three-quarter view of the man’s head makes his unusually shaped nose an equally distinctive feature of the picture. His jaw muscles have loosened with age, creating wobbly jowls; his pale blue-grey eyes and strong, almost pointed, features give a sense of his intellect and character.
Technical examination has shown underdrawing beneath the paint surface, which acted as a guide for the outlines of the man’s features and also for details such as the wrinkles around his eyes. The precision of the drawing suggests that it is based on a cartoon, a design that was manually transferred onto the panel.
A drawing that matches this portrait of the old man almost exactly is now in the Albertina Museum, Vienna. The Vienna drawing is sometimes thought to be by Mantegna, Bonsignori’s contemporary; they met in the city of Mantua. It has even been suggested that Mantegna supplied Bonsignori with the drawing but there’s not enough evidence to be sure. It seems more likely that Bonsignori made the drawing as a preparatory study before the painting. This is the only close-up portrait drawing by the artist to survive, but drawing was a very important part of his artistic process. Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, admired his drawings, praising the one he made when painting her young son Federigo.
The sharp intellect that shines through the man’s face seems to have been put to use in a senior position in the administration of Venice: he wears the black stole and cap that were the uniform of the Venetian citizen and patrician classes, but the red tunic (fur-lined here) indicates that he was either a magistrate or a member of one of the city’s councils. Documentary evidence suggests that he might be Giovanni Cappello, a senator and procurator from the San Marco area of the city from about 1466. We can't be sure, but the costume and date do make this possible, especially as Giovanni Cappello would have been around 60 at the time this portrait was made.
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