This portrait is probably of Francesco Albani, one of the leading citizens of Bergamo; the initials ‘FA’ are painted in reverse on his signet ring. The Albani supported Venetian rule in Bergamo, and Francesco was created a Knight of San Marco by the Venetians in 1516. This portrait may have been painted in 1517 when he was part of the delegation to Venice reaffirming Bergamo’s loyalty after several years of French and Spanish occupation of the city. On that occasion he wore ‘gold cloth in the French style with a massive gold chain round his neck.’
The beard in this portrait may be significant. In 1509 the occupying French had ordered the men of Bergamo to shave their beards, as beards were considered a Venetian style. In Venice beards were associated with mourning and political distress, which may have been why the French objected to them.
This portrait is probably of Francesco Albani, from one of the leading families of Bergamo; the initials ‘FA’ are painted in reverse on his signet ring. During the sixteenth century Italy was not a unified country, but a series of city states, duchies and republics, under their own or under Spanish or French rule. The Albani supported Venetian rule in Bergamo, but after the defeat of the Venetians at the Battle of Agnadello in 1509 Francesco Albani surrendered the city to the King of France, who occupied most of the surrounding territory.
Although the Venetians retook the city, Albani was one of those who had to negotiate its surrender again in 1515, this time to the Spanish army. When the Spanish withdrew from the city, Albani was one of the delegates sent to Venice in 1517 to reaffirm Bergamo’s loyalty. He was created a Knight of San Marco by the Venetians in 1516.
Cariani was from Bergamo, but Albani may have met him while in Venice. Like many of his fellow citizens, Cariani returned to Bergamo once more peaceful times arrived. Albani was an official of the Scuola di San Giuseppe (the confraternity of Saint Joseph) in Bergamo, which in 1517 commissioned an altarpiece for the church of S. Gottardo from Cariani.
This portrait may have been painted in 1517 when Albani was part of the delegation to Venice, on which occasion he wore ‘gold cloth in the French style with a massive gold chain round his neck’. A similar robe and chain are worn by Ottaviano Vimercati, another city elder of Bergamo, in Cariani’s signed altarpiece of the Resurrection dated 1520 (Brera, Milan). This portrait may show Albani in the very robe he wore on that occasion. The cloth has a design of stylised pomegranates, curving branches and scrolling acanthus leaves. The contrast of the interlocking green rectangles of fabric with the near-circular gold robe creates a powerful and striking composition.
It may be significant that Albani has a beard in this portrait. In 1509 the French had ordered the men of Bergamo to shave their beards and by a decree of June 1511 had imposed a 100 ducat fine for wearing them, as beards were considered a Venetian style. In Venice beards were associated with mourning and political distress, which may have been why the French objected to them.
Many experts have argued that another version of this portrait, which was in the collection of the Counts Albani in Borgo S. Antonio in the late eighteenth century (now in a private collection), is the original. It has the arms of the Albani family added beside the sitter’s right sleeve but not the reversed FA on the gold seal ring – a detail that a copyist might exclude. However, the picture is more likely to be a replica.
The National Gallery’s painting has been extensively retouched and large areas of the curtain and tablecloth have been overpainted, possibly because the original green paint has darkened. The outlines of the hands have been strengthened as have some portions of the beard and hair.
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