Bartolomeo Bianchini was a nobleman and humanist scholar from Bologna – his name is written on the letter he holds. This is the earliest known use of a letter as a means of naming the sitter in an Italian portrait.
The painted ledge makes it appear that we are looking through a window. Bianchini’s hand seems to project over the ledge, creating the illusion that our world and the painted world are continuous, making the portrait seem more real. Ledges like this are used for the same effect in many earlier Netherlandish portraits.
The lighting from the right is unusual, suggesting that this portrait might once have been paired with a companion picture lit from the left – perhaps a portrait of the man who wrote the letter. This portrait seems to be based on the Portrait of a Man with a Ring by Francesco del Cossa (Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid).
The young man in this portrait has been identified as Bartolomeo Bianchini, a nobleman and humanist scholar from Bologna. He is portrayed against an imaginary landscape of jagged rocks and grassy plains, and we appear to have interrupted him reading a letter.
The text of the letter is written in a neat script that shows through the paper but cannot be read by us. Envelopes were not used for letters at this time and the name of the recipient was written on the centre of the back of the paper, which would have remained visible when the letter was folded. Bartolomeo Bianchini’s name is written in brown ink on the central part of the paper, which would have been the outside. Bianchini was a friend of Francia and an admirer of his work. He commissioned him to paint a Holy Family, which is now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
We don‘t know of any other earlier use of a letter as a means of naming the sitter in an Italian portrait. However it is seen in Netherlandish portraiture, for example in the portrait of Marco Barbarigo made by a follower of Jan van Eyck in the 1430s. Usually the writing identifies the artist and attests to his skill rather than identifies the sitter. The strong realism of Netherlandish portraits, made possible by the use of oil paint, was an important influence on artists working in northern Italy and Venice at this time.
Bianchini’s hand appears to project over the stone ledge or parapet into our space. The ledge creates the impression that we are looking through a window into a real space, and the hand reaching out into our space enhances this illusion. This use of the ledge in portraiture can be traced back at least as far as Jan van Eyck’s portrait inscribed ’Leal Souvenir' and it is common to many Netherlandish portraits, particularly those by Memling, some of which were known in Italy.
The central fold of the letter seems to project beyond the front plane of the picture, breaking the boundary between the picture and reality. The letter is like the pieces of paper also with creases we see apparently stuck to the front of the ledge in other portraits, such as that of Christ Blessing by Antonello da Messina painted in Venice 30 years earlier. These are painted to create the illusion of being real paper stuck on the painting to trick the viewer and show off the artist’s skill.
In its format, composition and setting, Francia’s portrait seems to be based on one by Francesco del Cossa now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid. In Francia’s portrait, the gentle curves of the grassy hills echo Bianchini’s sloping shoulders, plump chin, rounded cap and collar. The very slender trees are similar to ones by Perugino, whose style influenced Francia.
The lighting from the right in this portrait is unusual, indicating that it might once have been paired with a companion picture lit from the left – perhaps a portrait of the friend who wrote the letter.
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