This unidentified man is standing beside a virginal, which was a very popular household keyboard instrument in sixteenth-century Italy. He is shown half-length holding a pair of steel dividers – used to take measurements – which echo the splayed pose of his fingers against his black costume.
The picture is possibly by Bernardino Campi, who was one of the leading painters in Cremona and portrayed the city’s prominent citizens. It may be that the dividers refer to the musical scale and that the man was a designer of musical instruments, as Cremona was famous for the making of musical instruments. The portrait resembles a dated and inscribed portrait by Campi of Don Prospero Quintavalle (private collection, Italy) of 1556. The costume and style of beard suggest a date in the early 1560s.
This unidentified man is standing beside an early keyboard instrument known as a virginal. The virginal was a very popular household instrument in sixteenth-century Italy. It is related to the harpsichord but only has one set of strings, which run at a right angle to the keys.
The man is shown half-length holding a pair of steel dividers, which would have been used to take measurements. The spread of the dividers echoes the splayed pose of his fingers against his black costume. The picture may be by Bernardino Campi, who was from Cremona and painted portraits of the city’s leading citizens. The sitter’s fingers and somewhat stern expression are similar to those in Campi’s portrait of Don Prospero Quintavalle (private collection, Italy) of 1556.
The virginal suggests that the man in the National Gallery’s portrait may have been a musician, whereas the dividers point to mathematical or architectural interests. He might have been an architect and an amateur musician. It is also possible that the dividers refer to the musical scale, or that the man was a designer of musical instruments. Cremona was particularly renowned for the making of musical instruments, and was later home to the famous violin maker Stradivari.
The man’s right hand supports a black cloak that covers his left shoulder and arm. The paint of the black background and black clothes is damaged, with a frizzled surface, which makes the folds and textures of cloak and tunic difficult to read. The tunic is decorated at the cuffs, along the arms and over the shoulders, at the top of the arms, around the high collar and down the front with a band of silk fabric, also black but with a different texture and a simple pattern of tiny repeated diamonds. The small crinkled edge of white collar visible at his neck indicates a very simple early form of ruff. This would suggest that the portrait was painted in the early 1560s.
Beards of the type the man is wearing, low on the chin, can be seen in paintings of the 1560s, for example on the figure of John the Baptist in Giulio Campi’s Baptism of Christ, dated 1568, in Cremona Cathedral. In the National Gallery’s portrait the artist has meticulously painted every hair of the sitter’s beard, eyebrows and eyelashes, and even recorded the highlights on the damp surface of his eyeball. Underdrawing with fluent and boldly brushed lines can be seen through the paint in the sitter’s hands, especially his left, and some lines show where the artist made revisions. The strings of the virginal were scratched through the wet paint freehand.
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