Signed and dated in 1574, this superb picture of a nobleman attired in richly decorated parade armor is among the finest portraits painted by Scipione Pulzone, the most celebrated portraitist of his generation in Italy. His portrait style was influenced by that of Raphael, and was informed as well by the international style of portraiture emanating from the Hapsburg court, in particular as elaborated by the Fleming Antonis Mor (circa 1517-1577), who had visited Rome in the early 1550s. Pulzone was also inspired by Titian in his use of a rich, vibrant palette and in the trenchant psychological characterization of his sitters.
Pulzone's ability to create a lifelike sense of his sitters' presence and extraordinary skill in recording the textures and minute details of their costumes made him the most sought-after portraitist in Rome. Writing in 1584, Raffaello Borghini declared Pulzone 'very excellent in painting portraits [which] seem to be alive' ('che paiono vivi'). Thus, Borghini observes, his portraits were sought after by the 'most important gentlemen of Rome and all of the beautiful women' ('Signori principali di Roma, e tutte le belle donne'). (R. Borghini, Il riposo, Florence, 1584, p. 578). Though Pulzone worked primarily in Rome, his fame as a portraitist spread throughout Italy, and he was summoned in this capacity to the Aragonese court in Naples in 1584 and later to the Medici court in Florence. His sitters were among the most wealthy and eminent individuals of the time, and included Popes Pius V and Gregory XIII, Cardinals Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle and Alessandro Farnese, Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Marie de' Medici, Queen of France.
In the present portrait, the sitter is shown three-quarter-length, dressed in magnificent ceremonial armor of the latest fashion. Above the gorget, a ruffle of delicate white lace sets off the sitter's elegant features; his voluminous trunk-hose are of satin embroidered with gold. His gauntlet and helmet are arranged on a red velvet-covered table at lower left, which is balanced at upper right by a gold-trimmed and tasseled blue velvet drape, an illusionistic device which alludes to the Renaissance custom of covering paintings with curtains. He holds a cylindrical document case in his left hand, and in his right, a letter. The inscription at the top of the letter, which signifies 'Most illustrious and Excellent Signor Jacopo,' identifies the sitter as Jacopo (or Giacomo) Boncompagni, the natural son of Pope Gregory XIII and future Duke of Sora, Aquino, and Marquess of Vignola.
Jacopo was born in Bologna in 1548 to Ugo Boncompagni (then a simple cleric) and his mistress, Maddalena Fulchini. Far from denying his paternity, Ugo legitimized Jacopo the year he was born, and throughout his pontificate (1572-1585) would advance his son's social, political, and financial interests with surprising openness in post-Tridentine Rome. Such ambitions are reflected in Jacopo Zucchi's altarpiece, The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great, painted in 1575 for the church of the Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, Rome, in which Jacopo's likeness appears among the congregants surrounding the celebrating Pope, who bears the features of his father. Several years earlier, the newly-elected Pope had appointed his son keeper of the Castel Sant'Angelo and captain general of the pontifical troops, sending him in 1573 to Ancona to fortify the coastal areas against the Ottoman threat, and in the following year to Ferrara to greet Henri de Valois, soon to be crowned Henri III, King of France.
Around this time, King Philip II of Spain, an ally of Pope Gregory, named Jacopo commander-in-chief of the Spanish armies in Lombardy and Piedmont, and soon thereafter, Knight of Calatrava and the order's Grand Chancellor. In 1576, Gregory arranged for his son an advantageous marriage to the beautiful Costanza Sforza, daughter of the Count of Santa Fiora; the ceremony was attended by the entire College of Cardinals. Subsequently Gregory financed Jacopo's acquisition of the fiefdoms of Vignola, the Duchy of Sora, and the Duchy of Aquino and Arpino, thus making him vastly wealthy. After his father's death in 1585, Jacopo left the pontifical states, never to return. Following a sojourn in Milan, where Philip II had called him to service as general of the Spanish army, Jacopo retired to Isola del Liri near Sora, where he died at the age of 64 in 1612.
Highly erudite in literature, philosophy and the arts, Boncompagni was a patron and protector of the poet Torquato Tasso, the philosopher Francesco Patrizi, and Pierluigi Palestrina, the celebrated composer of sacred music. He also encouraged the architect Jacopo Vignola, who dedicated his Due regole della prospettiva pratica to Boncompagni, published in 1583. Andrea Palladio's edition of the Commentaries of Julius Caesar, published in Venice in 1575, was dedicated to him as well. From 1574, Boncompagni assembled a vast scholarly library, among the most important in Rome, which was greatly enriched by that of his friend, the eminent Italian humanist Carlo Sigonio, after the latter's death in 1584.
In the present portrait, the handsome Boncompagni, aged 26, is shown in splendid military armor, signaling not only his prodigious wealth, but also his role as commander of the Papal army. His mission as defender of the Church is specifically referenced by the figure of victorious St. Michael, leader of God's army, in the oval at the center of the breastplate, and by the decoration on the helmet, which shows a chained infidel seated below a figure of Mars. The cylindrical document case which Boncompagni holds may refer to the ambassadorial mission on which he was sent by his father in 1574, the very year the picture was painted, to greet Henri de Valois, the future King of France, in Ferrara (Vannugli, op. cit., p. 58).
The armor is painted with the meticulous attention to minute detail and skill at rendering textures for which Pulzone was renowned. Embossed, blued and exquisitely gilded and damascened, it shows the love of lavish ornament, artistic sophistication, and extraordinary technical virtuosity of late Renaissance armorers in Italy. Exceedingly costly, such elaborately decorated armors were rare in the 16th century, as are the portraits in which they appear. Although the armor cannot be attributed to a specific master, its style relates to that of Lucio Marliani, called Piccinino (1538-1607), one of the great armorers of the Renaissance, who was active in Milan in the last quarter of the 16th century. The closest surviving armor to that in our portrait is preserved in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (inv. 29.150; fig. 1). Produced in Milan around 1575, the Metropolitan armor shows a very similar design on the breastplate, consisting of symmetrical vertical bands of embossed ornament which narrow as they converge in the lower center.
The decorative motifs on Boncompagni's armor are adapted from the classical repertory, and reflect in particular the Renaissance fascination with grotesque ornament all'antica. Arranged in vertical sequences en candelabra, the motifs include putti blowing trumpets of fame or holding up crowns of Victory, Roman military trophies, fantastic beasts and hybrid sea monsters, swags of fruit, mascarons, and anthropomorphic lions' heads, symbolic of the military might of ancient Rome. In the Renaissance, such armorial decoration all'antica was meant to associate its wearer with the glories and virtues of the ancient Roman military heroes, a flattering comparison which Boncompagni--as the newly-appointed commander of the Papal troops--would surely have welcomed.
Pulzone's Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni builds on a tradition of Renaissance three-quarter-length, three-quarter-view military portraits which was established by Titian in the 1530s as seen, for example, in his Portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino of 1536-38 (fig. 2; Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi). Its most immediate model, however, was likely Siciolante da Sermoneta's Portrait of Francesco II Colonna of 1561, which Pulzone would surely have seen in the collection of the Colonna family in Rome (fig. 3; Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica). While following the general format of the Colonna portrait, Pulzone has eliminated the imposing architectural setting, isolating the figure against a neutral dark background. His head is set lower within the painted field, which, in conjunction with his direct gaze at the viewer, makes him seem more humanly accessible. While the almost uncanny effect of a living, breathing presence inhabiting this portrait reflects the influence of Titian, it is also surely due to the close personal relationship between artist and sitter: in 1574, the very year the portrait was painted, Pulzone named his first-born son Giacomo, and Boncompagni became his godfather (Dern, op. cit., p. 32).
This portrait first came to light in 1899, when exhibited at the London gallery of Thos. Agnew & Sons, from whom it was acquired in that year by the financier William C. Whitney (1841-1904), founder of the New York branch of the prominent Whitney family. A major investor in thoroughbred horseracing, he was the breeder of twenty-six American stakes winners, and helped establish the 'Winter Colony', an exclusive equestrian community in Aiken, South Carolina. He was also an important American political leader, serving as Secretary of the Navy in the first Cleveland administration. In the mid-1890s, Whitney commissioned McKim, Mead and White to remodel his palatial mansion at 871 Fifth Avenue in the Italian Renaissance style, and from 1899, the Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni was displayed there with Whitney's extensive collection of early Italian pictures, portraits by Van Dyck, tapestries, and architectural carvings from European palaces and cathedrals. Upon Whitney's death in 1904, his mansion, along with its furnishings and art, was purchased by James Henry Smith, one of the most colorful figures on the New York social scene at the turn of the 20th century. In 1899, Smith, a modest, obscure Wall Street bachelor, inherited from an eccentric uncle a fortune of $50,000,000. His rise within New York society was meteoric. With Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish as his social mentor, he held a constant series of grand dinners, concerts and balls at his Tuxedo Park mansion and his New York residence at 871 Fifth Avenue. In 1907, while honeymooning in Japan with his bride, the former Mrs. Rhinelander Stewart, Smith suddenly died. The New York mansion and its contents, including the Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni, were auctioned by the American Art Association three years later, after which the picture was lost to notice until the late 1980s, when it re-surfaced in a private collection in Mexico. Shortly thereafter, it entered the private collection where it has remained until the present day.
Two contemporary versions of this portrait are known: the first, bust-length and now lost, was with the dealer Demotte in Paris during the interwar period; the second, from the collection of A.R. Dufty, is currently on display with the Royal Armouries Collection in the Tower of London (fig. 4). Not attributable to the master himself, it shows the sitter with the features of Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592), Duke of Parma and Piacenza, substituted for those of Boncompagni (Vannugli, op. cit., figs. 4-5; p. 64, n. 1). Scalini has pointed to an anonymous half-length portrait on slate of Ottavio Farnese (1525-1586), father of Alessandro, in which the sitter wears the same armor as that in our portrait. Believing this portrait to pre-date the present one, he has speculated that Ottavio, grandson of Pope Paul III, may have given the armor to Boncompagni as a gift (Scalini, op. cit., p. 272).
The present painting has been requested for the exhibition being organized by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici Artistici ed Etnoantropologici del Lazio, Scipione Pulzone da Gaeta. Arte e Fede nel Mediterraneo del Cinquecento, Diocesan Museum, Gaeta, 25 May-15 September 2013.