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, with whom he worked 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 a rich town with a powerful landowning and mercantile élite. The sitter in this previously unknown 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 contribution to the tradition of realism in Lombard painting that a generation later would inspire the young Caravaggio.
The type of the ruff appears not infrequently in Moroni's portraits from the mid-1560s onwards: dated examples include the Cavaliere Pietro Secco Suardo (1563, Florence, Uffizi; M. Gregori, Giovanni Battista Moroni, tutte le opere, Bergamo, 1979, no. 103), the Gentleman with a beard (1563; ibid., no. 217), the Man of the Mosco Family (1565, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum; ibid., no. 138), the Young Man (1567, Bergamo, Accademia Carrara; ibid., no. 29) and the Cavalier (1576, Boston, Gardner Museum; ibid., no. 138): the most celebrated of the undated instances is the so-called Tailor (London, National Gallery; ibid., no. 121). The treatment of the facial hair is most closely paralleled in the magisterial 1576 whole-length at Boston, in which the head is considered from an almost identical angle.
When the additions to this canvas are discounted, this is apparently the smallest among Moroni's extant portraits. But while he is justly celebrated for the whole-lengths - the Gian Gerolamo Grumelli of 1566 (Bergamo, private collection; ibid., no. 46, recently exhibited at Fort Worth) is perhaps the most spectacular - Moroni 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, one of a prelate in a private collection at Trent (ibid., no. 200), which measures 46 by 36 centimetres, and the Liechtenstein Ecclesiastic at 45 by 37 centimetres (ibid., no. 202). In a number of other portraits Moroni places the top of his sitter's head surprisingly close to the edge of the canvas: a more extreme example 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. In the present instance, Moroni used a section of canvas cut at an angle, perhaps left over from another commission.