This little-known canvas is a characteristic work by one of the most original portraitists of the Renaissance. Berenson termed Moroni 'the only mere portrait painter that Italy has ever produced' (B. Berenson, Italian Painters of the Renaissance, reissued London, 1952, p. 190). He was indeed the only major cinquecento painter who was first and foremost a portraitist, and whose enduring reputation is based almost exclusively on his achievement as such: to this extent Berenson's implied analogy with Frans Hals, although not intended in a complimentary sense, is not misplaced.
Born at Albino, near Bergamo, the westernmost city of the Venetian terra firma, Moroni was strongly influenced by the Brescian Alessandro Bonvicino, Il Moretto, whom he assisted in the late 1540s. While aware of wider developments - Lotto had worked for Bergamasque patrons to spectacular effect and there was a major altarpiece by Titian at Brescia - Moroni's very consistency as a portraitist reflected his unquestioned dominance as the painter of Brescia, a rich town with a powerful landowning and mercantile élite. The sitter in this portrait evidently belonged in that very prosperous milieu. Partly because of its small dimensions, the picture may stand as an example of that directness of observation that distinguishes Moroni from his more courtly contemporaries and constitutes his most significant contribution to the tradition of realism in Lombard painting that a generation later would inspire the young Caravaggio.
Traditionally thought to be by Moretto, this picture was first published as by Moroni by Mina Gregori. On the basis of the type, the costume and the cut of the beard, she advanced a date between the late 1550s and the early years of the ensuing decade, comparing the portrait specifically with the Uffizi Portrait of a Savant (Gregori, no. 104): the type of the collar is found in other pictures of similar date, including the Brescia Unknown Poet of 1560 (ibid., no. 165), the Sarasota Mario Benvenuti (ibid., no. 188), and the London Youth of the Lupi (?) Family (ibid., no. 131).
While Moroni is justly celebrated for whole-lengths - the Gian Gerolamo Grumelli of 1566 (Bergamo, private collection; Gregori, no. 46) is perhaps the most spectacular - he also supplied numerous works of more intimate format: these include two portraits of men at Siena (ibid., nos. 191-2), which measure 48 by 36 centimetres (the original dimensions of the present portrait were 46.7 by 35.8 cm.); one of a prelate in a private collection at Trent (ibid., no. 200) which measures 46 by 36 centimetres; the Liechtenstein Ecclesiastic at 45 by 37 centimetres (ibid., no. 202); and the Portrait of a Man, measuring 31.4 x 21.8 centimetres (excluding additions) that surfaced at these Rooms, 7 July 2000, lot 85. The additions to the latter, like those to the present portrait, may in part be due to Moroni's tendency to place his sitter's heads surprisingly close to the edges of his canvasses: an even more extreme case is the Bust of a young Man (Firle Place, Sussex; ibid., no. 110), which at 35 by 28 centimetres is also of relatively small dimensions, but the fact that some twenty other examples (ibid., nos. 14, 25, 51, 53-4, 62, 104, 107, 110, 125, 127, 131, 159, 165, 197, 205, 215 and 271), including pictures of half-length format, can be cited, from every phase of Moroni's development, clearly does reveal something of the way he planned his portraits.
What is beyond dispute is the fact that Moroni's smaller portraits, for which odd pieces of canvas left over from larger commissions seem to have regularly been used, have an extraordinary immediacy, which clearly reflects the fact that the scale of such supports meant that he could work at very close quarters to his sitters. In this context it is perhaps revealing that for his most subtle full-lengths so sensitive an artist as Ramsay two centuries later inserted bust or half-length portraits painted from life in his canvasses. Tintoretto on a few occasions apart, no artist of Moroni's generation was as conscious as he of the artistic possibilities of intimate portraits.