The sitter’s doublet is inscribed on the neckline: ALBERTVS. PIVS CARP [...] + MDXII (‘Alberto Pio from Carpi 1512’). Alberto Pio was recognised as the legitimate ruler of Carpi, near the Italian town of Modena, in 1512 – but by then he was 37, older than he appears here. The knotted decorations on his clothing have a heraldic character and are associated with the Savoia family, with which the Pio family were connected.
The lines in the open book are a famous passage of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid: the dead Anchises explains the transmigration of souls – in which a soul passes from one body to another after death – to his son, Aeneas, who has visited him in the underworld. The scene in the background showing the twin peaks of the sacred mountain Parnassus is probably related to the text, although it is not clear how.
Alberto Pio was ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. The coat in the painting may be an ambassadorial gown, perhaps one of German style.
The sitter’s doublet is inscribed on the neckline: ALBERTVS. PIVS CARP [...] + MDXII (‘Alberto Pio from Carpi 1512’). The inscription has been repainted, and although it may simply be a replacement of the original, the name could have been added or adapted to make the painting more appealing to a collector. The portrait does not obviously resemble the person depicted on a medal inscribed with Alberto Pio’s name (British Museum, London), but it is not unlike his image in a fresco painted by Loschi in the chapel of the Palazzo Pio in Carpi.
Alberto Pio was recognised as the legitimate ruler of Carpi, near the Italian town of Modena, in 1512; he was granted the rights over the part of the territory that had previously been controlled by Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. This date seems consistent with the sitter’s hairstyle and costume, but in 1512 Alberto Pio was 37, older than he appears here. The sitter is presented half-length in front of a parapet flanked by two columns, with a landscape between them. The frontal pose echoes portraits of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro and Elisabetta Gonzaga (both now in the Uffizi, Florence) attributed to Raphael, made for the courts of Urbino and Mantua around 1506. The knotted decorations on the clothing have a heraldic character and are associated with the Savoia family with which the Pio family were connected.
All the writing on the pages of the book has been reconstructed, and in some places it seems to diverge from the traces of the original. The lines are the famous passage of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid (verses 724–47): the dead Anchises explains the transmigration of souls – in which a soul passes from one body to another after death – to his son, Aeneas, who has visited him in the underworld. This passage was of particular interest to Christian theologians with a classical education as it showed how pagan thinkers could believe in the immortality of the soul and its cleansing after death, not unlike the purification process undergone in the Christian purgatory. The religious significance of the text and the erudite but obscure meaning of the background figures seem entirely consistent with Alberto Pio’s work as a theologian as well as a classical scholar.
The book may be intended to recall a precious fifth-century manuscript belonging to Alberto Pio – the famous Virgilio Mediceo now in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence, which contained the complete works of Virgil. The symmetrically placed temples in the background are dedicated to Dionysius and to Phoebus Apollo on the twin peaks of the scared mountain Parnassus. The landscape derives from a woodcut of Parnassus by Hans Suss von Kulmbach in a text by Conrad Celtes of 1502. Celtes was poet laureate at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, so it is very likely he was known to Alberto Pio, who acted as the Emperor’s ambassador. The coat in the painting may be an ambassadorial gown, perhaps one of German style, as similar loose gowns with cord fastenings appear in German paintings.
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