Despite the circumstantial information provided by the inscription, the attribution of the portrait remains problematic. To the difficulty of identifying the artist on grounds of style is added the fact that the second half of the second line, which was almost certainly originally inscribed with the painter’s name and the date, has been completely effaced—perhaps deliberately, to make way for the false signature “Paolo Cagliari [Paolo Veronese] 1557” that had been inserted by 1856. Nevertheless, from the authentic parts of the inscription, it is safe to infer the following: that the name of the sitter was Alessandro Alberti; that the portrait was painted when he was 30; and that it was painted in Venice.
On this basis, Ettore Camesasca connected the portrait with a letter written by Pietro Aretino to Alessandro Alberti in 1548, in which the author mentions that Alberti, in common with the Venetian patricians Niccolò Tiepolo and Daniele Barbaro, had had his portrait painted by Gian Paolo Pace. This somewhat obscure artist was unfortunately confused by Camesasca, followed by other scholars, with Gian Paolo Lolmo, who is documented in the area of Bergamo between 1581 and 1595, with whose style the present work has nothing in common. More recently, however, the biography of Pace has been clarified, with new documentary information, by Mattia Biffis, the essentials of which may be summarized as follows. The painter was first recorded in Venice in 1528, but by the 1530s he was active in Padua, where he seems to have remained based for the rest of his life. In 1543 he made a brief trip across the Alps to Augsburg, apparently following a recommendation by Aretino to the Fugger family that he was an able portraitist. Probably soon afterward he painted the portraits of Tiepolo, Barbaro, and Alberti, and in 1545, at the time of Titian’s visit to Rome, Pace painted a posthumous portrait of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (Uffizi, Florence), father of Cosimo de’ Medici, duke of Florence, as a pendant to Titian’s portrait of Aretino (Pitti, Florence), likewise intended as a diplomatic gift to the duke. In 1553, still in his capacity as a painter of courtly portraits, Pace sent an unspecified number from Padua to Alfonso Gonzaga, lord of a little court at Novellara, in Emilia. In about 1558 he began, but did not apparently complete, the pair of portraits of Irene and Emilia di Spilimbergo, now also in the National Gallery of Art. By this date, however, he had secured for himself a valuable ecclesiastical benefice that seems to have liberated him from having to earn his living as a full-time painter.
In his 2012 article, Biffis also established for the first time the identity of Alessandro Alberti. It was already clear from Aretino’s correspondence that a gentleman of this name was the recipient of nine letters from him between November 1544 and October 1550, and Alberti is mentioned in a further four letters to other correspondents. From these it emerges that he was a “creato”—in other words, a member of the entourage—of Giovanni della Casa, apostolic legate to Venice during this period of six years. Aretino addresses him affectionately, even paternally, calling him “il mio caro” and “figliuolo,” and offers him personal advice. But Biffis has now also shown that Alessandro was a member of the same Florentine noble family as the celebrated architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti, that he was born in 1514 and died in 1554, that he belonged to a fiercely republican branch of the family, and that he lived mainly in Rome as an exile from ducal Florence. If he is, indeed, the subject of the Gallery’s portrait, it must have been painted between his arrival in Venice and his 31st birthday—in other words, between October 1544 and March 1545. Although the whereabouts of the portrait are mysterious for three centuries after it was painted, it is probably no accident that it should have reemerged in modern times in Florence.
For Biffis the circumstantial evidence surrounding the presence of Alberti in Venice fit the Gallery’s portrait perfectly, and he fully endorsed Camesasca’s identification of Pace as its author. He further plausibly argued that the falsified name of “Paolo Cagliari” on the sheet of paper was inspired by the original signature “Gian Paolo Pace,” which was probably effaced by some unscrupulous dealer in the 19th century, with the probable purpose of transferring the authorship of the portrait from a minor, unknown artist to one of the most famous of Venetian painters. A problem, however, with accepting Pace’s authorship is that the other three surviving paintings by him—the Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and the pair of Spilimbergo portraits—bear very little stylistic resemblance to that of the Alessandro Alberti. These other portraits are much closer in style to Titian, whereas on the purely visual evidence, the Alberti has been variously thought to be Flemish, Emilian, or Lombard. Indeed, the sharp, factual precision of the handling of the costume is far from typically Venetian, and the physiognomical type of the subsidiary figure bears some resemblance, as was recognized by Fern Rusk Shapley, to works by Parmese painters, such as Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli. Yet as pointed out by Biffis, Pace was never, contrary to what is usually thought, an assistant in Titian’s workshop, but practiced rather as a portrait painter in Padua; and while the Titianesque style of the Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and the Spilimbergo portraits may be interpreted as a response to the needs of particular commissions, it can be argued that Pace’s own character as a portrait painter is more faithfully reflected by the Alessandro Alberti. It may certainly be imagined that the rich costume and self-conscious elegance of the portrait give a good idea of his lost portraits for the Fuggers and for the court at Novellara. The courtly aspect of the image is further emphasized by the subsidiary figure of the page, who is occupied in lacing Alberti’s breeches to his doublet. Biffis has pointed to similar figures in Titian’s Alfonso d’Avalos of circa 1533 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) and Beccaruzzi’s Ball-Player of circa 1540 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin); a later example is Paris Bordone’s Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages of circa 1555 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
For many scholars it may still be difficult to accept that the Alessandro Alberti, on the one hand, and the Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and the Spilimbergo portraits, on the other, are by the same artist. Further, it cannot be excluded that the purportedly apocryphal date of “1557,” now removed, in fact recorded a correct date—especially since it can be argued that the costume worn by the sitter corresponds better to the fashions of the later 1550s than to 1544/1545. Yet to reject the attribution to Pace would be to conclude that the sitter represents an unidentified, quite different Alessandro Alberti from the one who was present in Venice in the entourage of the papal legate between 1544 and 1550, and who died in 1554; and it would also be to draw the improbable conclusion that this namesake, who also happened to be aged 30 when he visited Venice a decade later, likewise had his portrait painted there by a painter whose style did not belong to local tradition.
March 21, 2019