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Peter Humfrey, “Titian, Italian 16th Century/Vincenzo Cappello/c. 1550/1560,” Italian Paintings of the Sixteenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 18, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2019 Version

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Vincenzo Cappello stands in full armor, grasping the baton of command, in this portrait designed to express the authority of a venerable military leader who had passed a lifetime in the faithful service of the Venetian state. Cappello was a member of a Venetian patrician family, several of whose members pursued distinguished careers in the navy. Vincenzo’s authority as a naval commander brought him political honors and responsibilities: he was knighted by Henry VII of England, nominated as ambassador to the papal court, and served as procurator of San Marco (the second-highest lifetime appointment in the Republic, under the doge).

Cappello’s celebrity as a military commander led to a demand for painted portraits of him both before and after his death in 1541. A number of artists met that demand. This Titian composition is preserved in at least four other contemporary versions or copies. Of these extant versions, the Gallery’s picture is now generally accepted as the earliest and the finest. Titian’s design changes can be seen in x-radiographs of the painting’s underlayers, indicating that the Gallery’s picture precedes the other known versions. Historic documentation and the painting’s broad brushwork suggest that it was executed in the 1550s. Titian was likely to have been aided in this task by his workshop, which would then have been entirely responsible for subsequent versions of the composition.


This portrait is known in at least four other contemporary versions or copies: in the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia[fig. 1];[1] in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg [fig. 2];[2] in the Seminario Vescovile, Padua;[3] and in the Koelikker collection, Milan.[4] According to John Shearman, x-radiographs have revealed that yet another version was originally painted under the Titian workshop picture Titian and His Friends at Hampton Court (illustrated under Andrea de’ Franceschi).[5] Of these versions, the Gallery’s picture is now generally accepted as the earliest and the finest, and before it entered the Kress collection in 1954, the identity of the sitter, established by Victor Lasareff in 1923 with reference to the Hermitage version, has never subsequently been doubted.[6] Lasareff retained a traditional attribution to Tintoretto, and Rodolfo Pallucchini and W. R. Rearick upheld a similarly traditional attribution to Tintoretto of the present version.[7] But as argued by Wilhelm Suida in 1933 with reference to the Chrysler version (then in Munich), and by Fern Rusk Shapley and Harold Wethey with reference to the present version, an attribution to Titian is more likely.[8] Consistent with the latter attribution is the frequent identification of the picture with a documented portrait of Cappello by Titian, recorded in a eulogistic letter and sonnet sent by Pietro Aretino to the sitter’s nephew Niccolò Molin on Christmas Day 1540.[9]

Vincenzo di Niccolò Cappello (1469–1541) was a member of a Venetian patrician family, several of whose members pursued distinguished careers in the navy.[10] Vincenzo himself served five times as Capitano Generale da Mar, an achievement that is noted in the inscription QUINQUIES DUX on the Chrysler version of the portrait. His authority as a naval commander also brought him political honors and responsibilities: in 1504 he was knighted by Henry VII of England; from 1515 to 1519, he was governor of Famagosta in Cyprus; in 1522 he was nominated as ambassador to the papal court; in 1539 he was made procurator of San Marco. His high reputation and popularity at home suffered a setback following his defeat by the Turks at the battle of Prevesa, off Epirus, in 1538, but in the final, difficult years of his life, he also found a stout public defender in Pietro Aretino, whose letter of 1540 lavishes praise on his military valor in the glorious defense of the Christian religion. Aretino also mentions the majesty of aspect conveyed by Titian’s portrait; by showing Cappello in full armor and grasping the baton of command, this was clearly designed to express the authority of a venerable military leader who had passed a lifetime in the faithful service of the Venetian state. Under the terms of his will, a full-length standing statue of Cappello was placed above the main portal of his parish church of Santa Maria Formosa. Executed by Domenico di Pietro Grazioli da Salò, it again shows the admiral holding a baton, but this time dressed in a military costume all’antica.[11]

Cappello’s celebrity as a military commander led to a demand for painted portraits of him, from both within and beyond Venice. In 1560, for example, the magistracy of the Procuratia de Supra paid for a portrait for its office in the Piazza di San Marco, a work that was still recorded there by Fulgenzio Manfredi in 1602 and Giovanni Stringa in 1604.[12] At least a decade earlier, the eminent humanist Paolo Giovio must have acquired a portrait for his celebrated gallery in Como, and as the owner pointed out, the sitter was portrayed in the very armor that he had worn at the Battle of Prevesa.[13] Giovio’s picture was clearly based on the original by Titian, since a bust-length copy of it, inscribed VINCENTIUS CAPPELLO, made on commission from Grand Duke Cosimo I by his court painter Cristofano dell’Altissimo, remains in the Uffizi in Florence. A woodcut version by Tobias Stimmer is also included in the 1575 Basel edition of Giovio’s Elogia Virorum Bellica Virtute Illustrium.[14] As pointed out by Lasareff, the Como version of Giovio’s portrait of Cappello—and hence also the original—must have been painted before 1552, the date of Giovio’s death.[15]

Lasareff, who identified the Hermitage version (fig. 2) as the original, and who also assumed that it was painted in the sitter’s lifetime, concluded that it was one of Tintoretto’s earliest works. But other critics who have upheld the attribution to Tintoretto have forgotten Lasareff’s firmly established terminus ante quem of 1552. In particular, Rearick suggested a date of circa 1572/1575, contemporary with a number of other official portraits by Tintoretto of Venetian admirals, including the Sebastiano Venier (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and the Tommaso Contarini (Musée de la Ville, Narbonne).[16] Unlike these sitters, Cappello had died 30 years earlier, and Rearick saw his portrait as a posthumous commission by his family, as part of an effort to rehabilitate his memory. In support of this theory, Rearick quoted a will of 1601 dictated by Vincenzo di Domenico Cappello, nephew and heir to Vincenzo di Niccolò, in which he speaks of four family portraits. These were named as of his grandfather Niccolò, by Palma; of himself and his father, by Titian; and of his uncle Vincenzo, by Tintoretto. For Rearick, the first of these portraits is perhaps identifiable with a full-length portrait of Niccolò Cappello at Chatsworth, attributed by Bernard Berenson to Palma Giovane (in which case, it, too, would be posthumous);[17] the pair by Titian must be lost; and the last, by Tintoretto, is identifiable with the present picture.

Rearick did not, however, develop the stylistic comparison with the portraits of admirals by Tintoretto that he considered similar to the Vincenzo Cappello; and, in fact, although these may be seen as deriving from it, the resemblances remain superficial. Characteristic of Tintoretto’s treatment of highlights are the rapid slashes of unblended white paint that criss-cross the sitter’s armor in the Sebastiano Venier, whereas the more varied brushwork and richer range of textural effects in the Vincenzo Cappello are equally characteristic of Titian. The portrait by Tintoretto mentioned in the will of 1601 was probably instead a copy or variant of the present picture, which by this date had already passed out of the family’s possession. A likely candidate, in fact, for Tintoretto’s version of Titian’s original is provided by the picture now in the Chrysler collection (fig. 1), in which the much finer, more linear treatment of the hair and beard, the unblended white highlights of the cloak, and the taller dome of the balding head, all seem typical, despite the contrary opinion of Suida and Bertina Suida Manning, and of Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, of the younger master.[18]

Confirmation that the Gallery’s picture precedes these other known versions is provided by the design changes revealed in the x-radiograph [fig. 3]. This is not necessarily, however, to conclude that it is identical with the portrait of 1540 recorded by Aretino. Comparison with Titian’s portraits of this period—including the Cardinal Pietro Bembo of 1539/1540 and the Ranuccio Farnese of 1541–1542, which hang close to it in the National Gallery of Art—show that they are compositionally more compact and pictorially more precise, while the very broad brushwork of the Vincenzo Cappello implies a date of a good decade later. If the present picture indeed dates from the 1550s—as was already implied by Diane H. Bodart[19]—its composition is nevertheless likely to have followed, or to have been elaborated from, that of the lost original of 1540, especially since the sitter died in the following year, and there would have been no opportunity to paint a portrait with a new composition from life. Titian was likely to have been aided in this task by his workshop—as already concluded respectively by Tamara Fomichova and Stefania Mason Rinaldi—which would then have been entirely responsible for the versions in the Hermitage (fig. 2) and Padua,[20] and also for the one in Milan. It remains an open question whether the version owned by Paolo Giovio was based on the lost original of 1540 or the present version, but in the latter case the Washington portrait would have to date from before 1552.

As pointed out by Lasareff, the composition of the Gallery’s picture, like that of its presumed prototype, develops that of Titian’s Francesco Maria della Rovere (Uffizi, Florence) of 1536–1538, in which a military commander is similarly portrayed standing in knee-length, wearing gleaming armor, holding a baton in his right hand, and in front of a shelf displaying his helmet and further batons. In pose and accoutrements, the Vincenzo Cappello may also be compared with several of Titian’s portraits of Eleven Caesars, painted for the duke of Mantua in 1536–1540 (lost, but recorded in the engravings of Aegedius Sadeler). It is natural that Titian, commissioned to paint a Venetian military hero in or just before 1540, should have adapted a formula recently devised for similarly martial images for the dukes of Urbino and Mantua. In turn, it provided the inspiration for Venetian warrior portraits of the later 16th century, including Tintoretto’s Sebastiano Venier, Veronese’s Agostino Barbarigo, and Palma Giovane’s Niccolò Cappello.[21]

Peter Humfrey

March 21, 2019


Probably William Beckford [1760-1844], Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, and Bath, England;[1] by inheritance to his son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, 10th duke of Hamilton [1767-1852], Hamilton Palace, Strathclyde [near Glasgow], Scotland; by inheritance to his son, William Alexander Anthony Archibald Douglas, 11th duke of Hamilton [1811-1863], Hamilton Palace; by inheritance to his son, William Alexander Louis Stephen Douglas-Hamilton, 12th duke of Hamilton [1845-1895], Hamilton Palace; (Hamilton Palace sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 17, 19, and 20 June 1882, no. 410, as Portrait of an Admiral in Armour by Tintoretto); (P. and D. Colnaghi, London and New York); sold 1882 to Henry Bingham Mildmay [1828-1905], London, Shoreham Place, Kent, and Flete House, Devon; (his sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 24 June 1893, no. 73, as Portrait of a Venetian Admiral by Tintoretto); purchased by (Thos. Agnew & Sons, Ltd., London) for Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th earl of Rosebery [1847-1929], Dalmeny House, Midlothian, Scotland; probably Albert Edward Harry Mayer Archibald Primrose, 6th earl of Rosebery [1882-1974], Dalmeny House; sold 1954 through (Wildenstein & Co., New York) to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[2] gift 1957 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, no. 180, as by Tintoretto.
Exhibition of Venetian Art, The New Gallery, London, 1894-1895, no. 219, as by Tintoretto.
Venezia Da Stato a Mito [Venice: From a State to a Myth], Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, 1997, no. 22, repro., as by Tintoretto.
The Age of Titian: Venetian Renaissance Art from Scottish Collections, Royal Scottish Academy Building, Edinburgh, 2004, no. 35, repro.

Technical Summary

The support is a moderate-weight twill fabric. It has been lined. The paint is fractured around the edges of the painting, and the x-radiographs show only faint evidence of cusping along the top and bottom edges. This indicates that the original support was trimmed slightly, though probably not significantly.

The ground, applied with a trowel, is now tan in color, but presumably was originally white. The x-radiographs [fig. 1] and examination with infrared reflectography[1] reveal that the sitter’s proper left shoulder and arm may have extended farther to the right. Since the sitter’s shoulders could not possibly have been so broad, this suggests that the composition originally may have been conceived with the sitter’s body facing front. The x-radiographs also reveal a puzzling series of forms beneath the mantel at the right edge and a narrow sash hung down from the sitter’s waist.

The figure was held in reserve, with the background elements painted around him. The underpainting was executed in an exceptionally broad, vigorous, and rapid manner, with strong brushmarking, but the face was more smoothly modeled in the upper paint layers. The artist used a deep red glaze to create the shadows of the folds of the cloak.

The paint layer is not well preserved, and the impasto has been flattened by lining. There is generalized abrasion throughout, with severe abrasion in the background at the top right and bottom left. In the face, the shadowed eye is abraded and repainted. There is a 32-centimeter vertical line of paint loss through the bottom center of the painting.

Joanna Dunn based on the examination reports by Carol Christensen and Joanna Dunn

March 21, 2019


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