With one hand on his helmet, the other on his rapier, this unidentified man looks directly at us. He stands in a partially ruined architectural setting, beside a large broken column on which his helmet rests. A column is an attribute of Fortitude and can also suggest the endurance of ancient values or a family lineage. Moroni may be implying that the sitter shares these virtues.
The very limited colour palette of blue, grey and black, with repeated small details of rusty orange and red, creates a striking visual effect and draws our attention to the sitter’s face and hands. We think that this and Moroni’s A Knight with his Jousting Helmet, also in the National Gallery, are likely to have been painted around the same time, due to the similar cut of the clothes and the men’s beards.
With one hand on his helmet, the other on his rapier, this unidentified man looks directly at us, willing us to engage with him. He stands in a partially ruined architectural setting, beside a large broken column on which his helmet rests. Slightly ruinous marble settings were common in Moroni’s portraits. The painting is lit from the right, which suggests that it was made for a specific location, as would be likely with a commission for a full-length portrait of this kind.
As in other male portraits by Moroni, the man is only partially armed. His chain mail sleeves may be attached to an arming doublet – like that we see in A Knight with his Jousting Helmet – here worn beneath his black tunic. Such sleeves were designed to protect the arm below an arm-piece of plate armour, such as the one on the ground in A Knight with his Jousting Helmet. The man’s sword is a rapier with a complex guard, which due to changes in the pigment is now difficult to make out against the black of his clothing. The helmet is a field-close helmet, like the one seen in A Knight with his Jousting Helmet, but without the plumes. We think that the two paintings are likely to have been produced at around the same time because of the similar shapes of the tunics and trunks and the cut of the men’s beards. It has often been supposed they were painted to hang together as companion portraits, but there is no convincing reason to think that this was the case.
Moroni has adopted a very limited colour palette of blue, grey and black for this portrait, creating a striking visual effect. He repeats details of colour and pattern to focus our attention on the sitter’s face and hands and to tie the composition together visually. The rusty marks on the wall are echoed in the orange, yellow and red cuffs of the sitter’s chain mail sleeves and in his gingery beard. The grey dotted veins on the column shaft recall the dotted pattern and tone of the chain mail, creating a visual link between the sitter and the column. The contrasting textures of wool and satin of the sitter’s black clothes are no longer apparent due to damage to the paint when the picture was rolled up in the past.
A column is an attribute of Fortitude and can also suggest the endurance of ancient values or a family lineage. The prominence of the column shaft in this portrait may imply that the sitter also has these virtues. The niche directly behind the column is curious and a feature only rarely seen in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italian architecture. At the Palazzo del Comune (formerly Palazzo della Loggia) in Brescia, four huge limestone Corinthian columns are set in precisely similar niches. They were put in place in the late fifteenth century, but the facade was only completed in the 1550s and early 1560s – the date this portrait was probably painted. Moroni, who lived and worked in Brescia and was the son of a mason, may have seen them and admired the unusual and extravagant effect. He repeated the column and niche in his Portrait of Antonio Navagero dated 1565 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan).
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