The inscription at the top of this picture tells us this is a portrait of Leonello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara. Leonello succeeded his father in 1441 and this picture was painted six years later. It shows him in profile, drawing attention to his sloping forehead and distinctive long nose – according to Leonardo da Vinci, the profile view was the most easily remembered. It was first fashionable in the courts of France and Burgundy and became popular in Italy until about 1470.
Leonello may have asked to be painted in profile in order to associate himself with Roman coins stamped with the heads of emperors. Like any educated nobleman of his day, Leonello was particularly interested in the art and literature of antiquity and so this connection would have pleased him. Oriolo has signed the picture along the bottom edge but he has had to squeeze in the ’s' of his first name, Giovanni, signed here in Latin: IOHANNIS.
The inscription at the top of the painting tells us that this is a portrait of Leonello d‘Este, the Marquis of Ferrara. Leonello succeeded his father in 1441, six years before this portrait was made. As the illegitimate second son of Nicolo III d’ Este he had not expected to inherit the title, but in 1425 his older brother Ugo was executed by Niccolo for having an affair with his stepmother, Parisina Malatesta.
Oriolo’s portrait shows Leonello in profile against a dark blue background. This angle emphasises the high bridge of his nose, which extends almost without break from his sloping forehead. His broad cheeks cover low cheekbones; his fleshy lips protrude over a rounded chin and jaw. The tips of his large ears are tucked under an abundance of dense red curls. He wears simple dress for a duke: a black pleated tabard (a short, sleeveless tunic) over a pink doublet, with buttons at the collar. Both are decorated with gold – the sleeve of the doublet is encircled with tiny golden flowers or sunbursts.
Leonello was particularly choosy about his painted image. When he became Marquis he commissioned Giovanni Bellini and Pisanello to paint his portrait in competition with each other. The story of the competition is told by the poet Ulisse degli Aleotti in his poem ‘on a Famous Contest’ written in 1442. No painting of Leonello by Bellini survives but Pisanello’s portrait is in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo. Here too Pisanello shows him in profile, emphasising his prominent lower lip and long, bony nose. Pisanello’s picture is slightly more refined and decorative: Leonello’s costume is more embellished and there are flowers in the background.
The profile view derived from portraits of the aristocracy in France and Burgundy where it was popular from about 1400. It remained fashionable in Italy until around 1470, but Leonello may have favoured it because it associated him with Roman emperors whose profiles were stamped on ancient coins. Leonello was tutored by the famous scholar Guarino da Verona, and, in common with other well-educated people of this period, had a keen interest in the art and ideas of antiquity. The profile portrait communicated not only his authority as a recently established ruler but also his learning. Leonello also embraced the fashion for portrait medals which arose in response to the interest in Roman coins, commissioning Pisanello to make portrait medals featuring his own image. It was the tradition for the reverse of these medals to make a point about the character or qualities of the subject on the front. One of Pisanello’s medals, for example, shows a blindfolded lynx – code for diplomatic skill, the need to turn a blind eye.
This is the only signed work by Oriolo who worked at the court in Ferrara from 1443 to 1449. He has squeezed in the ’s' of his first name (signed here in Latin: IOHANIS) so as not to paint over Leonello’s tabard or short cloak.
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