This portrait has long been known as ‘L’Avvocato‘, meaning the lawyer or counsel in Italian. The sitter’s air of well-paid theatricality and his supercilious regard, as though he is summing up evidence, may have suggested this title. It might also derive from a misreading of the folded letter in his hand which is addressed ’Al Magº Sig Julii‘ (’to the most worshipful Lord Giulio or Giuliano').
The portrait is one of Moroni’s most expressive works. It relies on the hands as well as the head for its effect, and also on the way in which the composition is structured – along a diagonal that runs from the upper right to lower left corner of the picture. The use of a diagonal and the extremely subtle gradation of the grey background is characteristic of the artist’s later work. The trim of the beard and the costume suggest a date of around 1570.
This portrait has long been known as ‘L’Avvocato‘, meaning the lawyer or counsel in Italian. The sitter’s air of well-paid theatricality and his supercilious regard as though he is summing up the evidence, may have suggested this title. It might also derive from a misreading of the folded letter in his hand.
The first line of the handwritten address reads ’Al Magº Sig Julii (‘to the most worshipful Lord Giulio or Giuliano’). ‘Magº’ may have been read as an abbreviation for Magistrato (‘magistrate’) rather than Magnifico (‘worshipful’). The second line is very hard to make out but the letters seem to be ‘S’, ‘piel’, ‘mnio’ – perhaps a name but otherwise meaningless – and the final word is concealed by the man’s thumb. The third and separate line consists of a single word which begins with an R. On a letter, this would be the location. It has been read as many places but the most likely is probably ‘Romano’ meaning Romano di Lombardia, near Bergamo. This was a town in which Moroni certainly had clients.
This portrait is one of Moroni’s most expressive works. It relies on the hands as well as the head for its dramatic effect, and also the way in which the composition in structured. As in Portrait of a Man with Raised Eyebrows, Moroni has used shadow as a compositional device. He creates a diagonal from the upper right to lower left corner. The diagonal is first in the shaded background, then it skims the sitter’s shoulder, wrist and the edge of the letter. It is also echoed in the pointing finger of the other hand. The turn, tilt and frown of the face all depend for their effect on their contrast with this diagonal.
The plain background and extremely limited colour palette of mainly black, white and greys focus our attention on the sitter’s head and hands with dramatic effect. The gold ring on his little finger stands out in this almost monochrome image to draw our gaze to the man’s left hand, hooked in his belt, making it an equal focus to his right, which holds the letter.
The trim of the beard and the costume suggest a date of around 1570. The extremely subtle gradation of the grey background is also characteristic of the artist’s later work, as is the use of the diagonal. Moroni’s famous painting known as ‘Titian’s Schoolmaster’ (National Gallery of Art, Washington) is the finest example of this.
Much of the original black paint was severely burnt and then repainted, probably when the picture was relined during the nineteenth century. During this process another canvas was attached to the reverse of the original to enlarge the painting all round by an inch. This was probably in response to Moroni’s practice of leaving very little space between the figure and the edge of the canvas, which resulted in many of his portraits being extended in later years as taste changed. Tests reveal that almost nothing of the original black paint now remains. The satin stripes in the clothes have survived, probably because of the white lead that was added to the pigment when the paint was made. The white cuffs, ruff and paper are well preserved, as is the flesh. The figure’s left hand may have been painted over the black clothes as the black beneath now seems to be showing through.
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