Shrewdness, power, and that conviction of invincibility that so often accompanies youth, radiate from the sixteen-year-old Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592) as he was captured in this stunning full-length likeness by the revered Flemish portraitist, Anthonis Mor, and his collaborator, Alonso Sánchez Coello. A native of Utrecht, Mor had a dazzling career that took him throughout Europe, thanks to a steady stream of royal and imperial commissions. A pupil of Jan van Score, Mor was championed by his friend and patron, Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, Bishop of Arras, who introduced the artist to the Habsburg Court and to the prince of Asturias, the future King Philip of Spain. In this circle, Mor quickly distinguished himself through his ability to immortalize with great sensitivity and insightful observation his sitters’ grand appearance and psychological disposition, revealing in particular his talent for rendering nuanced facial expressions and the effects of light scintillating on exquisite materials. It is these merits that enabled Mor to be appointed official painter at Philip’s court in 1554.
Following a convention favored by Mor, Alessandro Farnese stands here against a dark, neutral backdrop so that nothing detracts from his memorable physiognomy and splendid attire, all of which is expertly accentuated by cool light emanating from a source beyond the picture plane at left. The sitter sports a half-armor, or full corselet, for field use on foot, in blue-stained and gilt steel. The crimson piping identifies him as a member of the Spanish army. Alessandro's armor appears to have been made in Italy around 1560, and is almost certainly the Milanese armor mentioned by Margaret of Parma in her correspondence as being delivered to him in Madrid in October 1561 (A. Donati, unpublished study). Adorned with gold embroidered slashings, Alessandro’s hose and codpiece are made of pristine white silk, offering a striking contrast to the dark, polished metal of his armor. Gleaming white stockings add length to his legs, and the fact that his footwear is of a similar hue enhances this impression (the same ivory-colored slippers also appear in his previous portraits). The pallor of these sartorial details is echoed in the adolescent skin of his face, where a few shadows suggest burgeoning facial hair. And yet, while the sitter’s cheeks might still be mostly soft to the touch, his subtly modeled features speak of maturity fast approaching. Indeed, his strong nose, generous mouth, cleft chin, and alert gray eyes lend the young man an aura of composure and strength that seems beyond the reach of his years.
Anthonis Mor painted his first portrait of the young Alessandro Farnese in 1557. Alessandro was twelve years old at the time, and had travelled to Brussels to receive his education at the Court of his uncle, Philip II, in accord with the Treaty of Ghent signed by his father Ottavio Farnese. Alessandro was the grandson of Emperor Charles V by his mother Margaret of Parma, known as Margaret of Austria (1522-1586), and as the Farnese’s only surviving son, his placement within the Spanish court would ensure his family’s future loyalty to the Hapsburg dynasty. Signed and dated, the portrait of young Alessandro (fig. 1; Galleria Nazionale, Parma) is well-documented: having been commissioned by Margaret, it was paid for on 19 November 1557, by which date the work had already been sent to Parma. Margaret maintained a close relationship with Mor, commissioning from him several portraits of herself throughout her lifetime (fig. 2; see J. Woodall, Anthonis Mor. Art and Authority, Zwolle, 2007, pp. 394-403).
The young Alessandro would remain at the Spanish court until 1563. Two years later, he married Maria of Portugal and returned to Parma, but shortly thereafter he entered into the service of Philip II. Alessandro quickly distinguished himself as a man of considerable military prowess and bravery, particularly during the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, where he assisted his uncle, Don Juan of Austria (1547-1578), in the great naval victory over the Ottoman fleet (figs. 3-4). In 1578, still under the direction of his uncle, Alessandro took charge of a faction of the Spanish army, leading them against a coalition of Dutch, Flemish, English, Scottish, German, French and Wallon soldiers led by Antoine de Goignies. Demonstrating the martial acumen that would define his career, he successfully defeated his foes and captured de Goignies, despite being outnumbered by nearly 10 to 1. Upon his uncle’s death in October of that year, Alessandro was appointed Governor of the Spanish Netherlands and in this capacity, he continued to lead his forces to victory across the southern Netherlands. Alessandro would combine innovative military strategy with astute diplomacy to reclaim cities from the United Provinces (following the 1579 Union of Utrecht) including Maastricht, Bruges and Antwerp. Following his father’s death, he became Duke of Parma and Piacenza in 1586, though he charged his son, Rinuccio, to rule in his stead. After a failed attempt to invade England under the protection of the Spanish Armada, Alessandro turned his attention to France, where after several victories against Henri IV, the Duke was wounded at the siege of Caudebec-en-Caux and died in Arras at the age of 47.
All of the acclaim and tribulations that accompany a successful military career had not yet been experienced by the young Alessandro at the time the present portrait was created. At the end of August 1559, he left Brussels for Madrid, following Philip II who, returning to Spain, left the function of governing the Netherlands to Alessandro’s mother, Margaret of Parma. Anthonis Mor, also accompanied the Spanish king on this journey, following him to Valladolid and Toledo before the definite establishment of the Court in Madrid in the Spring of 1561. On the occasion of this departure, Mor painted a portrait of Alessandro Farnese in Cape and Cap, aged fourteen (fig. 5; oil on canvas, 174 x 97 cm, The Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna, inv. GE 2511; see O. Beaufils, “Antonis Mor. Portrait d’Alessandro Farnese avec cape et chapeau noir”, in J. Kräftner, ed., Les Collections du Prince de Liechtenstein, exhibition catalogue, Brussels, 2015, p. 77, no. 8). Executed between 1559 and 1560, the painting was part of the collection of Count Volpi di Misurata in the twentieth century, and was then displayed alongside the present Portrait of Alessandro Farnese in Armor. This latter must have been commissioned from Anthonis Mor in 1561, just before the artist’s departure from the Court in Madrid and his return to Brussels. An identical, full-length version of our painting in the Meadows Museum, Dallas, Southern Methodist University (oil on canvas, 177 x 99 cm.) confirms this dating. The Meadows version bears the inscription “ANNO AETATIS SUE XVI / 1561”. Both the Meadows picture and the present work are unsigned and were clearly intended to function as court portraits, either as official images of the sitter used to decorate the various residences of the commissioner, or to be offered as diplomatic gifts. An anonymous copy of our painting, reduced to three quarter length (oil on canvas, 115 x 94 cm), is in the Galleria Nazionale, Parma, and was likely painted for a similar purpose.
The present Alessandro Farnese in Armor was first published in 1993 by Lucia Fornari Schianchi with an attribution to Anthonis Mor (loc. cit.). This opinion was endorsed by Philippe Costamagna (unpublished study). Maria Kusche, however, advanced the idea that Mor’s pupil and collaborator, Alonso Sánchez Coello, copied our painting after the original in Dallas by his mentor (M. Kusche, Retratos y Retratodores. Alonso Sánchez Coello y sus competidores Sofonisba Anguissola, Jorge de la Rua y Riolan Moys, 2003, pp. 136-137, fig. 111 and p. 354, fig. 317). Recently, a more plausible theory has surfaced; according to Almudena Pérez de Tudela (A. Pérez de Tudela, “ Principe don Carlos de Austria”, in El Retrato en las Colecciones Reales. De Juan de Flandes a Antonio Lopez, exhibition catalogue, Madrid, 2014, p. 160, fig. 11.1 and p. 162, note 7) and Andrea Donati (unpublished study), the present painting is not a replica but rather the fruit of a collaboration between Anthonis Mor and his once-student, Sánchez Coello. At the time, Sánchez Coello was already established as a master in his own right, and in fact, he would take over the position of court painter to the king following Mor’s departure, enjoying a successful career under Philip’s patronage. These authors propose that Mor began the painting together with the Meadows version shortly before his departure from Madrid in 1561, having received the commission from Alessandro’s mother on the occasion of her son’s birthday in August. Archival documents record that Mor requested a passport valid for three months in the third week of October and he is documented in Brussels at the year’s end.
To fulfill this demanding schedule, Mor and Sánchez Coello would have worked closely together. Based on stylistic evidence, Pérez de Tudela and Donati suggest that Sánchez Coello finished Mor’s painting after the departure of the Flemish artist. In particular, Sánchez Coello would have focused his attention on painting Alessandro’s armor and clothing. Indeed, while Sánchez Coello excelled in the meticulous rendering of court attire, his ability to capture the nuances of his sitters’ psychological expressions was not as refined as that of his teacher. This distinction is best understood through comparison of the present portrait with other likenesses executed by Mor and copied by Sánchez Coello, such as the Philip II in Armor (fig. 6; San Lorenzo de El Escorial) painted by Mor and its 1566 copy in the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna, and the two Portraits of Isabelle de Valois of c. 1560 in the Váres Fisa collection, Madrid (see J. Woodall, Anthonis Mor: Art and Authority, Zwolle, 2007., pp., 340, 349, 370-71, figs. 115, 122, 129-30). Whereas in Mor’s paintings, the sitter’s facial features are rendered with the greatest fidelity, Sánchez Coello’s portraits seem to tend towards idealization. For the present work, the Italianate handling of certain parts of the suit, such as the white silk of the padded trunk hose, are most characteristic of Sánchez Coello’s work, while the sophisticated treatment of the armor’s reflections better corresponds to Mor’s more refined hand.
According to family tradition, the two full-length portraits of Alessandro Farnese in Cape and Alessandro Farnese in Armor were acquired together in Florence by Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata (1877-1947) at the advice of Bernard Berenson. The painting appears to have been first recorded in the 26 February 1586 inventory of Margaret of Parma’s collection, as a portrait of Alessandro “when he returned to Spain” (A. Pérez de Tudela, Antonio Moro y Alonso Sánchez Coello en la corte española junto a Alejandro Farnesio (1559-1563), Madrid, 2014 (unpublished)). Philippe Costamagna has also attempted to identify these paintings in the successive inventories of the Farnese collections (unpublished essay). The 1644 and 1653 inventories mention two portraits that might correspond to these works, but the generic descriptions and lack of dimensions precludes any definitive identification. Due to the complexity of the Farnese collection’s dispersal during the following centuries, it remains unclear at what point these two remarkable portraits left the collection.