Schooled under Bronzino and Baccio Bandinelli, Santi di Tito was one of the most accomplished painters and architects in Florence during the second half of the 16th century. After a brief spell in Rome, from 1558 until 1564, where he notably completed frescoes for rooms in the Vatican, he established himself as a leading figure in the Tuscan capital: he completed works for key churches in Florence, including The Raising of Lazarus, of 1576, for Santa Maria Novella, and Saint Thomas before the Cross for San Marco, and was one of the group chosen, under the direction of Giorgio Vasari and Vincenzo Borghini, to decorate the extraordinary studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio in the 1570s. Far less is known about his activities as a portraitist. But recent research has shown that he must have been highly active in the field: the inventory of his house and workshop, made after his death, listed a large quantity of portraits, some identified but many of unknown sitters (see J. Brooks, ‘Santi di Tito’s studio: the contents of his house and workshop in 1603’, The Burlington Magazine, CXLIV, 1190, May 2002, pp. 279-88). His portraiture, as his religious painting, is distinguished for its greater naturalism, effecting a subtle but noticeable turn away from the mannerist bearings of mid-century Florence.
This portrait, dating perhaps to the 1590s, is a fine example of this emerging sense of naturalism, with a hint of a smile playing across the sitter’s face. While his identity is not known, the inclusion of the lute on the table indicates that he is a well-educated individual, if not a musician himself. For as Florence moved through the sixteenth century, a ‘new, young Florentine culture’ emerged where musical performance and literature came together. The first madrigals had begun to appear in the 1530s, with arrangements for solo voice and lute printed at the same time; the genre would become by far the most popular form of vocal music in Italy in the subsequent decades (see V. Coelho, ‘Bronzino’s Lute Player: Music and Youth Culture in Renaissance Florence’, in M. Israëls and L. Waldman (eds.), Renaissance Studies in Honor of Joseph Connors, Villa I Tatti Series 29, Milan, 2013, p. 656). As a result, portraits of young Florentines as musical performers and lutenists become more frequent from the mid-16th century onwards, as a means of expressing their cultural status and courtesanship. The idea of the courtier as a knowledgeable, refined and nonchalant individual was developed by Baldassare Castiglione in Il cortigiano, published in 1528. An eminently important text, Castiglione discussed how the courtier should wear his erudition lightly, cultivating a quality of ‘studied carelessness’, or sprezzatura. Such portraits of young Florentine gentlemen with lutes include Francesco Salviati’s Portrait of a Lute Player (Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André), and Bronzino’s Young Man with a Lute (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi). Bronzino’s work is particularly relevant to the present picture: in both instances, only the peg box of the instrument is visible, a subtle acknowledgement of humanist, musical and courtly virtue. And though little is also known of the early provenance of the work, it formed part of the collection at Palazzo Guadagni in Florence (fig. 1), a fine Renaissance palazzo that was constructed in 1502, shortly before Santi di Tito himself was born.