That this remarkable picture is Raphael's richly documented portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino was evidently believed when it was in the possession of that assiduous nineteenth-century collector, Lord Northwick. Both identification and attribution had been altered by 1862, when Sir John Charles Robinson, perhaps the most perceptive scholar of Italian renaissance painting, drawing and sculpture of the time, restated these in decisive -- and accurate -- terms. Robinson's view was supported by no less an authority than Sir Charles Eastlake, director of the National Gallery. Nonetheless, partly because of the restorations that disguised the condition of the picture, Robinson's attribution was disregarded. In 1908 the picture was exhibited as 'ascribed' to Raphael, but Sir Claude Phillips, in a review, suggested an attribution to Sebastiano del Piombo, with which W.G. Constable later agreed. The picture was subsequently considered a copy; and it was only in 1971 that the attribution to Raphael was decisively restated by Professor Konrad Oberhuber, in what must remain one of the most comprehensive studies of any single Renaissance portrait.
Few pictures are as intimately associated with the political life of Renaissance Italy as Raphael's Lorenzo de' Medici. When this was commissioned, early in 1518, Raphael was widely regarded as the outstanding living painter and had a dominant role in Rome. The sitter was the nephew of the artist's greatest patron, Pope Leo X (1475-1521), born Giovanni de' Medici, the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), who had been elected to the papal see in 1513.
Lorenzo II de' Medici (1492-1519) was the son of the Pope's elder brother, Piero II de' Medici (1471-1503), by his wife, Alfonsina Orsini. On the death of his father in 1503, Lorenzo had become the lineal representative of his family and naturally the Pope sought to use his influence to further dynastic ends. Leo X's immediate predecessors had all, as opportunity offered, sought to build up or consolidate the temporal position of their families, and in this respect Leo X was in the unusual position, because of his elder brother's early death, of being effectively the head of the Medici family, whose prestige if not wealth had been so splendidly augmented by his father. Anxious for a marital alliance with the French crown, so long seen by the Papacy as its most effective ally against the Holy Roman Empire and other Italian powers, the Pope had in 1515 secured that of his own younger brother, Giuliano de' Medici, duc de Nemours (1479-1516), to King François I's aunt, Philiberte de Savoy (1498-1524), the posthumous daughter of Philip II 'sans terre', Duke of Savoy. Giuliano, who had been painted at the time of his marriage, died a year later, without legitimate issue. Giuliano had been invested with the government of Florence, then still ostensibly a republic, and Lorenzo duly succeeded him as Captain General of the Florentine Republic.
Although apparently dissipated, Lorenzo was, like others of his family, a man of high ambition; and if he had lived longer might have proved to be a more than appropriate dedicatee of Macchiavelli's Principe. He and the Pope were not content with their family's traditional role in Tuscany. He took an active role in his uncle's so-called war of Urbino, launched in 1516 -- when Leo X invested Lorenzo with the as-yet unconquered duchy on 8 October -- and was severely wounded on the back of his head at the successful siege of Mondolfo in 1517. With the death of the duc de Nemours, Lorenzo became the only male of the senior line of the Medici family in a position to marry and maintain the dynasty; and once again the Pope looked to France for a suitable bride, although he was of course aware that despite the wealth of the Medici, his nephew could not aspire to the hand of a daughter of France, had indeed one been available. On 17 October 1517 the Duke nominated Giovanni Stafileo, Bishop of Sebenico and the Florentine ambassador to the King, Francesco Vettori, as his procurators for the marriage negotiations (Shearman, 2003, I, p. 310), and Thomas de Foix, Seigneur de Lescun, reached Rome on 28 October 1517 as the special envoy of François I, to promote, among other matters, a French marriage for Lorenzo. With the marriage alliance, Leo X sought to gain the King's native support for his own objectives in Italy, which centred inevitably on consolidating the Medici interest in Florence and Tuscany, and also for a projected crusade against the Turks, who under Sultan Selim I posed a very obvious threat to the Mediterranean powers.
This portrait was evidently commissioned in connection with the betrothal of Lorenzo to a cousin of King François I, Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, daughter of Jean de Bourbon and niece of François de Bourbon, who had been born in 1501. As neither the Duke nor his bride-to-be had met, an exchange of portraits was arranged. It was natural, for the portrait of the former, to turn to Raphael, who had previously portrayed Lorenzo's younger uncle, the duc de Nemours, on the occasion of his marriage. Furthermore, it was Raphael who, later in 1518, was to create the celebrated portrait of his older uncle, the Pope, with the latter's illegitimate first cousin, Cardinal Giuliano de' Medici (1478-1534) -- who in 1523 would become Pope Clement VII -- and a trusted associate, Cardinal Luigi de' Rossi (Florence, Uffizi). Moreover, as is known from the correspondence of Lorenzo's secretary in Florence, Goro Gheri, the latter, on 6 November 1517, had suggested that Raphael or another artist should take the Duke's portrait for a proposed coin. Moreover, in the fresco of the Oath of Pope Leo III in the Stanza dell'Incendio of the Vatican, Raphael himself -- rather than the assistants responsible for the greater part of the mural -- had, earlier in the year, introduced a portrait of Lorenzo standing flanking the central group: the Duke is richly dressed, his left arm akimbo as in this portrait, but seen from the side. His swaggering presence in the fresco was no doubt the point de départ for this picture.
The commission clearly mattered to Raphael. He was aware that the engagement portrait was to be dispatched to the French court, where it would inevitably be seen by François I, whose interest in works of art was widely known, and attested, not least, by his hospitality to the ageing Leonardo da Vinci. Moreover the sitter was of importance to Raphael for a more personal reason. Lorenzo's duchy of Urbino had been seized from Francesco Maria delle Rovere, who had inherited this from the Montefeltro in 1508. The painter's father had been in the service of Francesco Maria's maternal grandfather, Federico di Montefeltro and Raphael himself had worked for the deposed duke's uncle: yet, because of his interests at Urbino, he would have had every reason to cultivate the support of the new duke -- whom ironically the Montefeltro had sheltered as a child when the Medici were driven from Florence in 1494. Equally ironically, delle Rovere, partly due to Lorenzo de' Medici's death, would recover Urbino in 1521 and the finest of his family's possessions would eventually pass to the Medici as the result of a later matrimonial alliance.
The earliest documentary reference to the portrait is misleading. On 22 January 1518, Beltrame Costabili wrote from Rome to Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, informing him of the projected marriage and:
E che 'l Duca ha mandato il suo retracto per Raphael de Urbino. E scrip[se] se li manda il rectracto de la don[n]a.
(Shearman, 2003, I, p. 316)
The writer repeated this erroneous information in a further letter of 27 January to the Duke (ibid., p. 318). In fact the picture was, as yet, unfinished. The reciprocal portrait of Madeleine, conceivably one of three recorded in her daughter's inventory (Langedijk, II, p. 1215), but now lost, was dispatched from Amboise on or before 29 January, and seems to have been forwarded from Florence on 23 February. The Duke was, except for a brief visit to Florence of 6-12 December 1517, in Rome during the period of the marriage negotiations, leaving Rome for Florence on 20 January, which establishes an absolute terminus ante quem for the sitting. Baldassare Turini reported from Rome to Gheri at Florence on 3 February, by when the picture had been finished but awaited varnishing.
[...] Dite alla Ex.a del Duca che 'l suo rittrato è finito, ma che non se li può mandare per insino che non è invernic[i]ato, il che non si può fare stando questi tempi
tristi come stanno; perchè Raphaello dice che ha bisogno d'un dì che sia sole per poterlo asciugare bene, e poi subito se li manderà. Dite a S. Ex.a che gliè molto bello e che io credo gli satisfarà assai, e diteli che io sono stato hoggi a parlare a Michelino per havere quei suoi lavori che me haveva
promesso che per tutto hoggi sarebbon finiti, e li ho trovati che ce n'è anchora per insino a sabbato. [...]
(op. cit., pp. 319-20).
This letter evidently crossed with one to Turini from Gheri, writing on the duke's behalf:
El ritracto mio che fa Raphaello da Urbino e le chose che fa Michelino: quando saranno expedite le manderete come advisate.
One senses Lorenzo's wish for haste. Turini's letter had evidently arrived by the 5th, when Gheri wrote again on his master's behalf:
Circa el ritracto: intendo quanto dice, che è finito et è bello, che molto mi piace; quando sarà tempo mandarlo, lo
mandarete. [...] (op. cit., p. 321).
At last, on 10 February, Turini could report to Gheri that the picture was 'finito del tutto' and would be sent to Lyons by the next courier. A further letter, of 12 February, establishes that Leo X and Cardinal Giuliano de' Medici had seen the picture and were pleased with this: it was to be sent on the 13th, evidently by way of Florence, as Gheri informed Turini that he had seen it on 14 or 15 February.
The portrait thus preceded the Duke to France. He set out from Florence on 22 March and reached Paris on 15 April. Presents valued at 300,000 ducats were taken by thirty-six horses to Paris. Among these were two major pictures intended for François I on which Raphael worked, apparently jointly for Leo X and the Duke, and which were sent from Rome on 2 June: The Holy Family of François I, and the Saint Michael, both now in the Louvre. As Shearman (op. cit., p. 328) suggests, the 'gesture of dropping flowers' on the Child in the former is presumably a reference to the birth of the Dauphin on 25 February at Amboise. And it was in the great château there that the wedding of Lorenzo de' Medici and Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne took place on 2 May.
The bridal couple remained at Amboise until 26 June, by when the Duke had been informed that the Holy Family and the Saint Michael were en route for Lyons: these were finally presented to François I at Nantes, apparently in July. Meanwhile, the Duke and Duchess of Urbino were approaching Florence, reaching Cafaggiolo on 27 August. After a week in the family villa at Poggio a Caiano, they made their entry to the city on 7 September. Their entry into the city was celebrated by a banquet, for which Raphael's newly-completed portrait of the Pope and the two cardinals was sent from Rome to emphasise his involvement in the marriage alliance (see G. Pieraccini, Le Stirpe de' Medici di Caffaggiolo, Florence, 1924, I, pp. 261-82; and Shearman, 2003, I, p. 364 ff.).
Undertaken in such style, the marriage was to be brief. Less than a year later, the Duchess died, shortly after the birth of their only child, Catherine de' Medici. A few days later, Lorenzo followed her, on 29 April 1519, dying of 'a disorder which is said to have been a consequence of his licentious amours during his visit to France' (W. Roscoe, The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth, 3rd ed., London, 1827, III, p. 387): he had already been ill on 26 January (Shearman, 2003, I, p. 452). As a result it was clear that the main line of the Medici family would be extinguished on the death of the Pope. Leo X's sense of dynastic loss was acute, and it is no coincidence that in 1519 he ordered Michelangelo to design the New Sacristy of the Church of San Lorenzo at Florence as a mausoleum to the family. Work proceeded until the Pope's death in 1521 and was resumed on the election of Cardinal Giuliano as Pope Clement VII in 1523. He was responsible for the decision to construct the mural monuments to his relative, the duc de Nemours and Lorenzo de' Medici, Michelangelo's sculptures for which were executed, with interruptions, between 1524 and 1534. The two effigies, known as the Capitani as both uncle and nephew are shown in classical dress rather than contemporary costume, were not strictly intended as portraits. Indeed the very fact that the standard likenesses of both were by Raphael would have made his former rival reluctant to follow such models. The sculptures are ideal princely images, the 'sanguine' Giuliano and the 'melancholic' Lorenzo. As such the tombs were to play their part in the propagation of the Medici image. By the time these were completed the family had returned to Florence. For Lorenzo's illegitimate son, Alessandro (1510-1537), had in 1532 been created Duke of Florence, owing his recovery of his family's inheritance not to France but to the Emperor Charles V, whose natural daughter he married. But in 1533 his legitimate sister, Catherine de' Medici was married to François I's son, King Henry II of France, thus forging the dynastic alliance to which her great-uncle, Pope Leo X, and father had aspired.
No drawing related to the picture survives and the fact that the artist was expected to work at considerable speed means that the design process must have been quick. Infrared photographs established that Raphael made numerous revisions: thus the sleeve, as originally projected, extended some two inches further at the cuff and the folds above the hand were also significantly altered.
The need to produce a picture quickly may have encouraged the decision to select a fine linen canvas rather than a panel, as was more usual with the artist. Raphael executed other portraits -- specifically those of Cardinal Bibbiena (Florence, Palazzo Pitti), Andrea Navazero with Agostino Beazzano (Rome, Galeria Doria Pamphili), and Baldassare Castiglione (Paris, Louvre), as well as the Sistine Madonna (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie) -- on canvas, and clearly a picture on such a support might have been more easily and safely transported. But in this connection it should be noted that the pictures painted for presentation to François I in 1518 were on panel. That the portrait of the Duke was on canvas is stated in the Medici inventory of 1 July 1560: this was recognised by both Robinson and Oberhuber as key evidence for the authenticity of this picture, the early known copies of which are all on panel.
In 1971 Oberhuber observed that there was 'disagreement as to the extent in which the school is present in the execution of this picture, justified maybe by the well-known fact that most late pictures by Raphael are done with the help of his pupils'. In the case of this portrait, Lorenzo's importance to Raphael and the fact that he is consistently and exclusively mentioned in the letters is significant: for that is not the case with the Joanna of Aragon (Paris, Louvre), also of 1518, in which studio participation is documented and of which the execution is evidently by Giulio Romano. Oberhuber observed of this portrait 'the golden bodice and the strawberry red sleeves with the golden chevrons painted with much more impasto, are very well preserved'. He notes also:
passages of great beauty especially in the rendering of the pieces of fur adorning the sleeves, in the richness of the liquid and free flowing paint that gives life and form to the silk of these sleeves and in the splendour and most subtle differentiation of surface qualities and lighting in the gold of the bodice. Perhaps the loosest and freest piece of painting can be found in the skirt with its rich silvery grey and gold and in the knot of the blue sash that holds the sword. The colours are strong but so subtly varied and tuned as to give a harmonious unity, and whites, the richness of the different reds the luminosity of the variant golds are set against the soft green of the background which again is muted by brown shadows. It is through these shadows, the play of light and shade over the surface, that everything is enhanced with life and movement, and it is this which strengthens the spatial impact of the great curve of the shoulders and left arm as the fur vanishes away into the shade.
Turning to the treatment of the flesh Oberhuber comments:
[...] the fine left cheek, the nose, and the mouth as well as the left eye and the hand show this thinness and subtlety of paint and that light 'coming from within' that Robinson so well observed as being typical of all authentic works of Raphael.
Oberhuber fairly comments that the portrait is 'a work of courtly representation'. He notes that the picture is like that of Joanna of Aragon -- also painted for presentation to François I -- and Titian's portrait of Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara -- whose agent's references to the Lorenzo de' Medici have already been quoted -- an early Italian example of a type of three-quarter-length princely portrait that had developed first in France.
Numerous copies of the portrait were made: the fullest account is that of Langedijk (op. cit., pp. 1189-91, nos 75, 7, a-q). A copy by Aristotele di Sangallo is recorded by Vasari (op. cit.), and another, presumably of the type, was executed by Alessandro Allori in 1580. One from the shop of Cristoforo dell'Altissimo is in the Uffizi, no. 2510. Unattributed copies are in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, no. 1108, and the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, no. F37, and another may have been in the collection of Henry Doetsch, sold at Christie's, 24 [=2nd day] June, 1895, lot 165. A reduction was engraved by Francesco Allegrini. Other presumed copies are recorded in early inventories.
The qualities of Raphael's portrait of the Duke of Urbino were recognised with a characteristic acuity in J.C. Robinson's account of 1862, printed here as appendix I. But it was not until 1971 that Professor Oberhuber in a magisterial article in The Burlington Magazine conclusively re-established the position of the picture in Raphael's oeuvre. The boldness of the design and the unforgettable brilliance of the artist's treatment of the costume establish the position of the portrait as one of the most compelling of all painted likenesses of the High Renaissance.