The man in this portrait appears to have just turned away from the darkness surrounding him to take a look at us. His lips are slightly parted as though he might speak.
An inscription on the back of the panel names him as Battista Fiera, doctor at the court of Mantua as well as a poet, though we can’t be sure it’s him. Costa had become court artist in 1506 and the painting was once thought to have been made when their two residencies coincided. But the way that Costa has given shape and three-dimensionality to the man’s features is much closer to his painting style in the 1490s.
Fiera was interested in the city’s artists and artistic projects. He mentioned Mantegna (Costa’s predecessor as court artist) in a poem about the best way to represent the concept of justice in painting, and also wrote about his admiration for Costa.
The man in this portrait appears to have just turned away from the darkness surrounding him to take a look at us. His lips are slightly parted as though he might speak. He seems to be examining us – or rather the artist – with interest, his head slightly tilted. The striking contrast of his red hair against his plum-coloured tunic almost distracts our attention from the warts on his cheek. His cap is such a deep aubergine purple that it is hardly visible against the black background.
An inscription on the back of the panel names the man as Battista Fiera, doctor at the court of Mantua as well as a poet. We can‘t be sure it’s really him, but it was thought to be in the seventeenth century: an engraving based on the painting formed the frontispiece (first page) of an edition of Fiera’s Coena notis published in 1649. He was more successful as a doctor than a poet, becoming official physician to the Marquis and Marchioness of Mantua – the Gonzaga family – in 1508.
Fiera’s writings show that he was interested in the city’s artists and artistic projects. He featured Mantegna (Costa’s predecessor as court artist to the Gonzaga) in a poem about the best way to represent the concept of justice in painting, and others seem to refer to now-lost paintings by the artist. Fiera also wrote about his admiration for Costa. He didn’t just observe the cultural life of the city from afar, however. He acted as an adviser to Isabella d‘Este, Marchioness of Mantua, in her plan to erect a statue of the city’s most famous citizen, the ancient poet Virgil, for which she had Mantegna make designs. He also paid for the refurbishment of one of the city’s arches, commissioning three terracotta sculptures of the heads of Francesco II Gonzaga, the modern Mantuan poet Battista Spagnoli and Virgil. He clearly had an affinity for classical antiquity and learning: in his will he expressed a desire to be buried beneath this arch, dressed in a toga and holding a book.
Costa had become court artist in 1506 and this portrait was once thought to have been made when his and Fiera’s residencies coincided. We know that the artist was suffering from a venereal disease in 1508 and it’s tempting to think that he might have received treatment from Fiera and offered him this painting in recompense – but Costa himself, writing to his employer Marchese Francesco II Gonzaga, revealed that his doctor was called Antonio da Grato. In any case, this portrait is much closer in style to another of Costa’s paintings in our collection, A Concert, which dates to 1488–90. In both Costa used strong contrasts of light and shade to make the face appear solid and three-dimensional.
If this is a portrait of Battista Fiera, it might be the ’picture of the said late Battista' listed as being in his studiolo (study) in an inventory of his possessions made three days after his death in January 1540.
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