Ranuccio Farnese (1530–1565) was the grandson of Pope Paul III (reigned 1534–1549); the third son of Pierluigi Farnese, duke of Castro (1503–1547); and the younger brother of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520–1589). As an 11-year-old in 1541, Ranuccio was sent by his family to northeast Italy, where he was looked after by the Venetian prelates Marino Grimani, patriarch of Aquileia, and Andrea Corner, bishop of Brescia, and by the humanist scholar Gianfrancesco Leoni. The main purpose of the trip was for the boy to attend a course of study at the University of Padua, but he was also taken to Venice to visit the church of San Giovanni di Malta in Venice, of which he had recently been made commendatory prior. As was perhaps arranged by Pietro Bembo, while in Venice he sat for the present portrait, in which Titian shows him wearing the black cloak and distinctive eight-pointed silver cross of the Knights of Saint John of Malta.
The fullest contemporary information about the circumstances of the commission is provided by a letter from Leoni in Padua to Cardinal Alessandro in Rome, dated September 22, 1542. Leoni wrote that the bishop of Brescia was about to return to Rome, bringing with him the completed portrait; that the bishop commissioned it as a gift for the boy’s mother (Gerolama Orsini, duchess of Castro); and that it demonstrates Titian’s extraordinary skill as a portraitist, especially since it was executed partly in the presence of the sitter and partly in his absence. Leoni added that the bishop and the patriarch had been applying pressure on the painter to go to Rome to undertake further commissions for the Farnese family.
As is revealed by a letter from the painter’s friend Pietro Aretino to the sculptor Leone Leoni in July 1539, Titian had in fact already been seeking an opportunity to work for the wealthy and powerful Farneses for a few years. As suggested by Wilhelm Suida, a role as intermediary was perhaps played by Cardinal Bembo, who had sat for Titian shortly before leaving Venice for Rome in October 1539 (see Cardinal Pietro Bembo, entry), and who wrote to their mutual Venetian friend Elisabetta Querini to announce Ranuccio’s departure from Rome in August 1541. According to Bembo, the plan was for the boy to stay in Venice for two or three weeks before moving on to Padua, and it may have been at this time that at least initial sittings for the portrait took place. Alternatively, as suggested by Gigliola Fragnito, the portrait may have been begun only in the following July, to commemorate Ranuccio’s attendance at the annual meeting in Venice of the Knights of Malta. In any case, the evident success of the completed and delivered work resulted in an invitation to Titian to attend the pope in Bologna in the spring of 1543, where he painted the portrait of Paul III without a Cap (Capodimonte, Naples), and then to stay with the papal entourage in its progress to a meeting with the emperor at Busseto. These initial contacts with the papal family were then followed by Titian’s visit to Rome in 1545–1546, and by the numerous further Farnese commissions that surrounded the trip, including the celebrated portrait of Paul III with Two Grandsons (Capodimonte, Naples).
The priorship of San Giovanni di Malta was the first in a succession of ecclesiastical offices and benefices conferred on Ranuccio. In 1544 he was made archbishop of Naples; in 1545 he became cardinal of Santa Lucia in Selci (a title later exchanged for that of Sant’Angelo); in 1549 he was made patriarch of Constantinople and archbishop of Ravenna; and in 1564, shortly before his premature death, he became archbishop of Milan. He was much less active as a patron of art than his brother Alessandro, and he did not exploit the contact with Titian by offering him any commissions of his own; he was, however, involved in overseeing the pictorial and architectural decoration of the Palazzo Farnese and the construction of the Oratorio del Crocefisso di San Marcello in Rome.
After being sent to Rome at the end of 1542, the portrait was presumably hung with other family portraits in the Palazzo Farnese. As pointed out by Francis Kelly, it was used by Taddeo Zuccaro as the basis for the full-length portrait of Ranuccio included in his fresco of 1562–1563, Pierluigi Farnese Being Made Gonfalonier of the Church, in the Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani at the Villa Farnese, Caprarola. Anthony van Dyck recorded the portrait in his Italian Sketchbook (British Museum, London) of 1622/1623 [fig. 1]. Before the transfer of the Farnese collection to Parma in the mid-17th century, inventories still provided an accurate identification of the sitter; already by 1680, however, he was described generically as “a boy.” By the time the picture reached Naples, he was no longer recognized as a member of the Farnese family; and unlike Titian’s various other pictures in the former Farnese collection, the portrait disappeared, presumably onto the market, in the early 19th century.
When the picture resurfaced in the Cook collection toward the end of the 19th century, John Charles Robinson accepted the signature as genuine, and because of the Neapolitan provenance, he accurately conjectured that the sitter was a member of the Farnese family. Meanwhile, Amadeo Ronchini had published documents relating to Ranuccio’s visit to Venice in 1541–1542, and Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle had discussed the episode in their biography of Titian; in 1906, Georg Gronau was able to make the first link between the documents and the portrait. But Gronau did not know the picture in the original, and following the judgment of Herbert Cook, he regarded it, together with other versions in the Berlin Museum and in the Brauer collection, Florence, as a copy, and the signature as false. Cook himself had come to a more positive judgment by 1913, but a majority of critics, including Oskar Fischel, Charles Ricketts, Tancred Borenius, Salomon Reinach, and Bernard Berenson, continued to categorize it as a copy after Titian, or else as a studio work. Suida, however, followed by Hans Tietze, reasserted Cook’s revised opinion; and since the cleaning of the picture in 1949–1950, no further doubts have been raised about its authenticity or high quality.
Following John Pope-Hennessy, more recent critics have tended to emphasize its character, together with the Clarissa Strozzi, also of 1542 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin), as one of the outstanding contributions to child portraiture in the history of European art. David Rosand, for example, emphasized the expressive contrast between the trappings of high status, conveyed by the rich costume and the elegant, thigh-length pose, and the gentle innocence and diffidence of the face. Peter Meller similarly pointed out that while the head and proportions are convincingly those of a boy, the neutral background is itself another element that relates the picture to Titian’s portraits of mature sitters. Luba Freedman differentiated between the Ranuccio and the Clarissa Strozzi to the extent that the latter stresses the sitter’s character as a child (in this case, of only two years old), whereas the former portrays him as the future adult, and as the heir to a great dynasty. However, the writer did not deny Titian’s awareness of the childlike vulnerability of the boy, in contrast to the contemporary court portraits of children by Bronzino, where they appear more purely as miniature adults. A comparison between the more rigid, intellectualizing child portraits of central Italian Mannerism, and the appropriately spontaneous character of the Ranuccio, was already made by Rodolfo Pallucchini in 1969.
March 21, 2019