Hans Memling: Man with a Roman Coin (Giovanni de Candida?)
Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
More than any other painter in the second half of the fifteenth century, Hans Mem-ling can be said to have added a new dimension to the type of portrait founded by Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands, and developed further by Petrus Christus and Rogier van der Weyden. Unlike his predecessors, Memling characterises his sitters in a highly personalised manner, a technique learned partly from his Italian contemporaries. He achieves this — in this small-format portrait now at Antwerp — by using landscape to evoke a mood which corresponds to his subject’s sensibility. In contrast to van Eyck’s dark and neutral backgrounds, or Petrus Christus’ use of paneling to suggest interior space — as can be seen in his portrait of a young lady, now at Berlin — Memling follows the example of quattrocento Italian portraiture in making the landscape background an essential part of the portrait itself. The role of landscape in Memlmg’s «ceuvre» is to reflect the mental and emotional state of the sitter, although conventional symbols and emblems, suggesting the ethical and religious coordinates of his sitters’ lives, still figure in his background scenes. Here, the young man is painted wearing a black gown and cap whose colour merges with, and therefore emphasises, the darkness of his hair. He is posed before a riverscape with trees, over which dusk is beginning to fall. A man riding a white horse along the riverbank is possibly an allusion to the rider in the Revalation of St. John (6, 2), whom medieval exegetes saw as the victorious figure of Christ. The motif is consistent with the swans, which, owing to their legendary dying songs, have often been related to Christ’s Passion. The palm-tree, too, highly unusual in a northern European landscape, and therefore particularly significant, would fit the context of the Passion. Perhaps the artist has been put in mind of New Testament martyrdom by the antique coin bearing the head of Nero (54-68). The young man, evidently the owner of the coin, is deliberately showing it to the spectator. According to the «Annals» (XV, 44) of Tacitus, Nero persecuted the Christians in Rome. Before they were executed, he had them subjected to the most bestial tortures.
Memling’s painting is based on a portrait of a young man — of which he had probably seen a copy, or which he may have been acquainted «with as a type — whose hands encompass a medallion bearing the head of Cosimo de’ Medici. This portrait (Sandro Botticelli Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder), now in the Uffizi, is ascribed to Botticelli. The medallion must have been cast after 1465, since it carries the inscription MAGNVS COSMVS/MEDICES PPP. The abbreviation PPP stands for «Primus Pater Patriae», a title conferred posthumously upon Cosimo. A miniature by Francesco d’Antomo del Cherico, contained in an Aristotelian manuscript now at the Laurenziana, shows that the medallion was cast for Cosimo’s son Piero ll Gottoso, who died in 1469. It must therefore have been made between 1465 and 1469, and Botticelli must have painted his portrait not long afterwards. The identity of the sitter has been the subject of much fruitless speculation. Sometimes seen as Piero il Gottoso himself, he has been equated with — among others — Pico della Mirandola, Niccolo Fiorentino and Cris-toforo di Geremia. Since the young man with the red cap is holding the medallion close to his heart, thereby revealing the extent of his feelings for it, the portrait may be viewed as a demonstrative sign of the sitter’s support for the Medici during the period of the Pazzi consiracy (1478).