This portrait is one of the earliest and largest known examples of a painting on tinned copper, and the only portrait. The subject is commonly identified as Cardinal Giacomo Savelli (1522–1587), who was made a cardinal at 16 and became Vicar General of Rome in 1560. There is a smaller version of this portrait on canvas in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome, where the artist is identified as Scipio Pulzone. The National Gallery’s version was probably the first of the two to be painted.
Pulzone, known as ‘Il Gaetano’, was famous for his meticulously naturalistic and rather austere ecclesiastical and aristocratic portraits. The texture of the paint here is used to great effect, with the line of a vein on the forehead marked out by small pinched dents in the wet paint, and points of white paint mimicking the way that the lace on the sleeve would catch the light.
This is one of the earliest and largest known examples of a painting on tinned copper, and the only portrait. A smaller version on canvas is in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome, where from at least 1798 it has been identified as a portrait of Cardinal Savelli by Scipio Pulzone. The National Gallery’s version was probably the first of the two to be painted, as it is finished with more meticulous detail, and technical examination reveals evidence of changes to the composition made during painting.
Cardinal Giacomo Savelli (1522–1587) was made a cardinal at 16 and became Cardinale Vicario (Vicar General) of Rome in 1560. Two Savelli family inventories record several portraits of Giacomo Savelli at different stages of his life, painted on different supports (stone, copper and canvas) and at least one of the portraits is recorded as by Scipione Pulzone. Our portrait is thought to date from around 1576–87, due to stylistic similarities with Pulzone’s Portrait of Cardinal Granvelle (Courtauld Gallery, London) of 1576 (also on copper), and the date of Cardinal Savelli’s death in 1587. No other known examples of paintings by Pulzone on tinned copper survive. The tin coating may have been added to the copper to provide a smooth surface for painting and in the belief that it would prevent the copper from developing a green surface when the oil paint was in contact with it.
Pulzone, known as ‘Il Gaetano’, was famous for his meticulously naturalistic and rather austere ecclesiastical and aristocratic portraits. Cardinal Savelli is shown seated half length, looking at us, resting his arm on a chair against a plain dark background. Other than the rich fabrics of his ecclesiastical robes, the composition is devoid of other finery.
The texture of the paint is used to great effect in the face, with thick directional brushstrokes following the contours of the forehead, and the line of a vein marked out by small pinched dents in the wet paint. Pulzone is particularly known for his fastidious painting of hair and beards – here individual hairs are painted with fine strokes of fairly dry opaque paint in a range of pale greys and fawns over a base of thinly applied warm greys and browns. Pulzone’s treatment of lace is equally meticulous, with the paint forming points of white that mimic the way that lace would catch the light. The Cardinal’s red robe, or mozzetta, has faded, affecting the tonal relationships of the painting.
Conservation of the portrait has revealed a series of distinctively shaped damages above the sitter’s right shoulder that were probably caused by deliberate scraping of the paint surface in the past to remove the artist’s signature. The shapes of the first two damages correspond to the outline of the words ‘Scipio’ and ‘Caetanus’, as Il Gaetano often signed himself. The shape of the third damage corresponds to the outline of Pulzone’s distinctive monogrammatic way of writing ‘faciebat’ (Latin for ‘made by’). The two damages at the right probably correspond to an inscribed date but it is not possible to tell what it was.
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