This elegant portrait is something of a mystery: neither its sitter nor the artist who painted it are known, yet the quality of its execution is undeniable. The picture displays a crisp design and a smooth finish with barely discernible brushstrokes. Its style has been associated with the naturalism characteristic of the Northern Italian school and bears resemblance to the work of Girolamo da Carpi, as well as to exponents of the Cremonese school such as Antonio Campi and Bernardino Gatti. The sitter’s commanding gaze and austere yet rich dress, consisting of an elaborately slashed black doublet over a white shirt, suggest he was a nobleman. The loops of strings that tie the shirt create a highly decorative effect.
A fascinating insight into the early provenance of this fine portrait and possibly a clue to the sitter’s identity is visible on the reverse of the panel where a Latin inscription, written in a 16th-century humanist script states: ‘Sit nomen Domini benedictum/ Die vig(esi)mo secundo idest 22/ martii 1554 ingredii in domo/ Pauli de Solis a quo fui retractus/ et nunc me possedit’ (‘Blessed be the name of God, the day twenty-second, that is to say 22 of March 1554, I entered the house of Paolo de Solis, by whom I was acquired [presumably directly from the artist] and who now owns me’).
This inscription plays on the common Renaissance topos of the speaking portrait, exemplified most famously by Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Jan de Leeuw and Portrait of his Wife Margareta (Vienna, respectively, Kunsthistorisches Museum and Groeningemuseum, Bruges), whose sitters address the viewer directly, their ability to speak paralleling the lifelikeness and immediacy of their visual depiction. The inscription on this panel is signed with a monogram reminiscent of notaries’ calligraphic seals, which granted authenticity to legal acts of the period. It has so far been impossible to identify the enigmatic owner Paulo de Solis or Paolo da Sole. He may have been the sitter himself, although the wording suggests otherwise. Rather, he may have been a relative or acquaintance of the sitter, keen to own a likeness of a loved one, or an independent patron of the arts smitten by the magnetic quality of this work.