Antonello da Messina: Portrait of a Man, known as «II Condottiere»
The portrait was given the title Il Condottiere (the mercenary commander) during the late nineteenth century because of the wilful determination in its sitter’s face. It entered Napoleon Ill’s collection in 1865, fetching 113,500 francs at a sale at the Pourtales-Gorgier Gallery. The large sum paid for it is proof of the high esteem in which the Italian painter was held by the mid-nineteenth century. Its new title betrays the reason for renewed interest in the portrait: it provided an aesthetic medium through which to identify with the power-hungry usurpers, the heroes and new, strong men of the Renaissance, with their ebullient, nouveau-riche style and dramatic rise to power. In an era of highly competitive capitalist and colonialist expansionism, upstarts of this kind were suitable models for those pursuing a successful career in politics or finance, and thus for the Emperor himself.
It is unlikely we shall ever know whether the mercenary activity ascribed to the sitter was of the type we might associate with Gattamelata or Bartolommeo Colleoni, with Sir John Hawkwood or Niccolo da Tolentino. In fact, none of these is very likely, since he was probably a noble. This is suggested by the sobriety of his clothes against the dark background, a fashion in Burgundian aristocratic circles at the time. The probable Venetian origin of the sitter is documented by the unfolded «cartellino» on a painted panel at the bottom of the painting, signed and dated «1475. Antonellus Messaneus me pinxit». It was during this year that the Sicilian painter — who may, though the likelihood is not great, have learned oil-painting techniques in Bruges under Petrus Chrisms (according to Germain Bazin) -was in Venice, where he helped to familiarize Venetian artists with methods of making and using oil paints, which, by contrast with tempera, were more lucid and flexible.
The portrait-type used by Antonello was of Netherlandish origin, too: the widely painted three-quarters view, exemplified (above) by Jan van Eyck’s «Leal Souvenir» , with its neutral background and foreshortening parapet calculated to persuade the spectator that what he is seeing is real. Antonello does not provide his subject with attributes defining social standing or profession, unless we see the sitter’s plain hair and garments in this light. Instead, he emphasises the alertness and clarity with which the sitter holds the spectator in his gaze. By restricting our view to the head and upper shoulders — a method borrowed from the bust portrait developed after Roman models in sculptures by Nino da Fiesole, Desiderio da Settignano or Antonio Rosselino (Nino da Fiesole Bust of Niccolo Strozzi) — Antonello calls attention to the sitter’s face, which, standing out against a uniformly dark background, is revealed as the centre of the man’s vitality and strength of will — characteristics felt through the subject’s gaze. In his «De visione Dei», Nikolaus von Kues refers to the way the eyes of a portrait, without themselves moving, follow the spectator to whatever point in the room he is standing, so that he always has the feeling of being watched. Von Kues compared this to the mystical «eye of God».