This thoughtful man, probably in his late twenties, is richly dressed in a costume dating from about 1516. He holds a rosary and his hand rests on a book tied with blue ribbons. Round his neck is a type of gold chain worn by the minor nobility.
The book and the laurels behind him suggest that he may have been a poet. The laurel tree was the attribute of Apollo, Roman god of poetry and music, and poets were traditionally crowned with laurel leaves.
It was previously believed that the portrait represents the poet Lodovico Ariosto (1474–1533), who wrote the epic poem Orlando Furioso, published for the first time in 1516. However, Ariosto would have been 41 or 42 in 1516, which seems too old for the man in this painting, and he does not resemble descriptions of Ariosto’s appearance.
This thoughtful man, probably in his late twenties, is richly dressed in a padded maroon jacket with dark blue stripes on the puffed sleeves. Over this he wears a brown fur cape. He holds a rosary and his left hand rests on a book tied with blue ribbons. He wears one leather glove and holds the other in the right hand. Round his neck is a type of fine gold chain worn by the minor nobility.
The book and the laurels behind the man suggest that he may have been a poet. The laurel tree was the attribute of Apollo, Roman god of poetry and music. Poets were traditionally crowned with laurel leaves, hence the title ‘poet laureate’. The rosary suggests that the man’s artistic interests are balanced by his spiritual concerns. The dark background and olive leaves recall Giorgione’s Laura of 1506, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
On the basis of the clothing, the painting probably dates from about 1516. This was when the epic poem Orlando Furioso was first published and achieved instant fame, and it has been proposed that the portrait is of the author, Lodovico Ariosto (1474–1533). However, Ariosto would have been 41 or 42 in 1516, which seems too old for the man in this painting. There is no evidence that Ariosto, who was from Ferrara, ever sat for Palma Vecchio, who worked in Venice. Equally, although Ariosto mentioned the contemporary Venetian painters Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo and Giovanni Bellini in the Orlando Furioso, he did not mention Palma Vecchio, which suggests that he was not familiar with him.
The expanded 1532 edition of Orlando Furioso contains a woodcut portrait of Ariosto based on a drawing by Titian, which does not look like the sitter in the National Gallery’s painting. Nor does the description of Ariosto in the 1562 edition – as a man with black curly hair, olive skin, thin lips, a thin beard which didn't cover the chin as far as the ears and a big curved, aquiline nose – seem to fit this man.
The sitter in the portrait looks similar in appearance and mood to one in a bust-length portrait thought to be by Titian in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. However in that painting the sitter is turned to the side and probably once had his arm resting on a parapet in a pose similar to that in Titian’s Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo. The Metropolitan Museum portrait has been significantly cut down. It does not include either the laurels or the book that appear in Palma Vecchio’s picture. Although the sitters look similar, the relationship between these two paintings, if any, is unclear.
The National Gallery painting is one of Palma Vecchio’s earliest successful portraits and may have inspired Titian’s Man with a Glove (Louvre, Paris). The portrait is damaged in several places, which have been repainted. The surface is also rubbed, meaning that the some of the subtleties of the paint texture and fine details have been lost, for example in the hair and the golden chain.
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