Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen, Westphalia 1577-1640 Antwerp), Portrait of Ferdinando Gonzaga as a boy; Photo: Christie's Images Ltd., 2011
oil on canvas; 32 x 22¼ in. (81.2 x 56.5 cm.) - Estimate $700,000 - $1,000,000
Provenance/ Presumably painted for Vincenzo I Gonzaga (1562-1612), Duke of Mantua. Probably one of the Gonzaga pictures acquired by the Contarini family, Venice.
Dr. Martin Schubart (1808-1891); his sale, Hugo Helbing, Munich, 23 October 1899, no. 97, as 'Moroni'.
Acquired by the present owner in 2000.
Literature/ R. Morselli, 'The Gonzaga family: Rubens and collections of the Ducal Palace in Mantua', exhibition catalogue, New York, 2001, pp. 59-67.
S. Schroth in the exhibition catalogue, Rubens: Dibujos para el retrato ecuestre del duque de Lerma, Madrid, 2001, pp. 41, 63.
S. Lapenta, in the exhibition catalogue, Gonzaga: la celeste galerie, Mantua, 2002, pp. 91, 173-74, no. 6.
D.S. Chambers and J. Martineau, review of the exhibition in Mantua, The Burlington Magazine, CXLIV, 2002, pp. 777-79, no. 1197.
Exhibited/ Mantua, Palazzo Te/Palazzo Ducale, Gonzaga: la celeste galleria, le raccolte, 2 September-8 December 2002, no. 6.
Notes/ This vivacious and engaging portrait undoubtedly represents Ferdinando Gonzaga, later to become duke of Mantua. The identity of the sitter is established by comparison with two other likenesses of him by Rubens. The more important of these is a portrait now in the Fondazione Magnani-Rocca in Mamiano in which the features are the same and the sitter again wears the distinctive robe with a Maltese cross indicating that he is a member of the Order of Saint John. The portrait in Mamiano is a fragment cut from Rubens's great canvas of the Gonzaga family adoring the Holy Trinity (fig. 1). The three sons of Vincenzo Gonzaga -- Francesco (1586-1612), Ferdinando (1587-1626) and Vincenzo (1594-1627) -- were there shown behind the duke in the act of adoring an image of the Trinity, which appears above them in the form of a tapestry held by angels. As Elizabeth McGrath points out, Ferdinando was the only one of the three boys to belong to the Order of Saint John and so his identity is not in question.
There is another likeness of Ferdinando in a drawing by Rubens in Stockholm, which bears an inscription identifying the sitter (fig. 1). This drawing not only shows the same features as the Mamiano portrait, it also shows the head in the same pose, with the eyes downcast. It thus seems to have been made for the Adoration of the Trinity in which Ferdinando is shown looking down at his prayer-book. On the other hand, the drawing does not appear to be contemporary with the Adoration of the Trinity, which was painted in 1604-1605, when Ferdinando was 17 or 18 years old. The Stockholm drawing shows a younger Ferdinando and was most likely made shortly after Rubens's arrival at the Gonzaga court in the summer of 1600 and before his departure for Rome in the summer of 1601.
Rubens had left Antwerp for Italy in May 1600. Not long after his arrival he had secured himself a position at the Gonzaga court, where he would certainly have been engaged primarily as a portrait painter. A matter of weeks after Rubens's arrival, the duke also called to his service a more experienced Flemish portrait painter, Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569-1622). It seems he had in mind a project of assembling a collection of portraits of beautiful women and wished this to be undertaken by Flemish painters whose naturalistic manner suited his taste. Rubens seems to have avoided the fate of being employed extensively on the project. In 1601 he had already received the commission for an altarpiece in Rome and he was to remain there until April of the following year. In 1603, moreover, he was entrusted with a diplomatic mission to Spain.
There are only limited possibilities for dating the present portrait. Like the Stockholm drawing, it could belong to Rubens's first period in Mantua from mid-1600 to mid-1601. If it is slightly later, it could date from a period between mid-1602 -- after Rubens's return from Rome and Ferdinando's from the University of Ingolstadt -- and March 1603, when Rubens set out for Spain. A dating to the period immediately upon Rubens's return from Spain seems unlikely because by that time Ferdinando had become a student at the University of Pisa and he was not to return to Mantua again until June 1607, already a 20-year-old. Since Rubens returned to Italy via Genoa and Milan (rather than Pisa), he would not have seen Ferdinando again until 1607. There are thus two plausible time slots for the dating of the portrait: one in 1600/1601 and another in 1602/1603.
With its smooth flesh modeling and sharp focus, the style of the present portrait recalls that of Frans Pourbus. This is in contrast to the bold, broken paint handling evident in Rubens's fragmentary portraits from the Adoration of the Trinity, of 1604-1605, and to the more Venetian idiom of the artist's Self-portrait with friends of 1602/1604 (Cologne, Wallraf Richartz Museum). The differences are such as to suggest to some scholars that this portrait may not be by Rubens. However, it seems clearly the work of a Flemish painter. It must have been painted for the Gonzaga court. There were two Flemish painters active at the Gonzaga court in the first years of the seventeenth century: Rubens and Pourbus.
While the present portrait echoes Pourbus's style, it does not do so closely enough to allow the possibility that it was painted by Pourbus. Peter Sutton draws a useful comparison with the somewhat later portrait of Ferdinando in the habit of a cardinal (Bologna, Pinacoteca) which is attributable to Pourbus. The older artist's handling is stiffer, more linear, more hard-edged, more detailed. The present portrait is characterized by a more succulent handling of paint, especially evident in the curtain but also in Ferdinando's collar and the Maltese cross on his robe. There is also a vibrancy in the handling of the flesh and the facial features which seems distinctly Rubensian. The fact that the portrait is unusually Pourbus-like for Rubens is readily explained by the fact that he had been employed by Vincenzo Gonzaga to paint portraits in this manner. Rubens was surely capable of inflecting his style towards that of Pourbus when the occasion required it. He is perhaps more likely to have done so very early in this Mantuan period and so a date of 1600/1601 seems more likely than the slightly later one of 1602/1603 after Rubens had been to Rome.
As a boy Ferdinando showed exceptional academic ability and was sent to study at the University of Ingolstadt (1601-1602) and then the University of Pisa (1603-1607). He was encouraged to read law but preferred to interest himself in philosophy and the natural sciences. He also discovered his abilities as a poet and as a composer of music. Shortly after his return to Mantua in 1607 he was appointed a cardinal and in this capacity he made his grand entry to Rome in 1610. Once there he soon became involved in art collecting and the patronage of artists such as Domenico Feti, Carlo Saraceni, Antiveduto Grammatica and Paul Bril. However with the death of his father, closely followed by that of his elder brother Francesco, in 1612 he returned to Mantua. He was declared duke in February 1613 and crowned (after finally having been released from his vows as a cardinal) in 1616.
Ferdinando's political career was not an illustrious one. His reputation is clouded by his notorious treatment of Camilla Faà to whom he was secretly married while still cardinal-duke. For political reasons this marriage was annulled on a technicality and Ferdinando separated his unfortunate lover from her son Giacinto and had her shut up in a series of religious establishments for the rest of her life. In an effort to produce a dynastically more acceptable heir, he then married his cousin Caterina de' Medici, but that marriage remained childless. A further vexed issue was the disputed succession to the Duchy of Monferrato, which Ferdinando was unable to resolve diplomatically and which led finally to war.
Ferdinando's temperament lent itself more to intellectual and artistic than to political pursuits. He took a close interest in the establishment of a university in Mantua and maintained his own wide-ranging interests in the arts and sciences. He remained an active patron, devoting huge sums to the building and decoration of the Villa Favorita outside Mantua (now in ruins) and adding to the family's art collections. The former involved him securing the services of a number of leading painters, notably Guido Reni, who provided four canvases of scenes from the story of Hercules (Louvre); Guercino, who painted an Erminia and the shepherds (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery); Giovanni Baglione, who provided a set of Apollo and the nine muses (Arras, Musée des Beaux-Arts), and Francesco Albani, who undertook a cycle of mythological subjects representing the Elements (Louvre). The collection was sold shortly after Ferdinando's death to Charles I of England to help deal with the ruinous financial situation in which Ferdinando's extravagances had left the ducal treasury.
We are indebted to Richard Beresford for this catalogue entry.
Christie's. Old Master & 19th Century Paintings, Drawings & Watercolors Part I, 26 January 2011, New York, Rockefeller Plaza www.christies.com