Picture of the month

Rosso Fiorentino, Portrait of a Young Man holding a Letter, 1518

A young man looks directly out of the painting, capturing us with his gaze. We have interrupted him reading a letter. He seems detached; his reactions, elusive.


The luxury of the young man's watered silk and damask jacket indicates wealth and status. The letter in his hands, as in other portraits by Rosso Fiorentino, hints at a literary, political, or legal profession for the sitter.

The letter is a focal point of the painting. At one time it would have been possible to read at least some of the words and it is still possible to make out a date; 22 June 1518. It is unusual to find a portrait in the period dated so specifically, so this date must have had special meaning for the sitter.

The reverse of the letter would have revealed the addressee’s name, which when folded would have acted as the envelope. This name was presumably the sitter’s, and the text between his right-hand fingers was most likely his address. The young man points with his left index figure to the text, as if inciting us to discover more about him.

Rosso was only 24 when he painted this portrait but already the eccentricity of his technique can been seen in the sitter's strange spiky fingers, which have been deliberately unfinished, and the almost abstract approach to the young man’s clothing and face; the folds of the jacket have particularly sharp edges and the hatching of his face is extremely free.

There is no underdrawing to this portrait, which together with the swift and free handling of the paint, suggests that it may have been completed in one sitting.

Rosso Fiorentino
Rosso Fiorentino: 'Portrait of a Young Man holding a Letter'

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