A label formerly on the back of the frame (now in the curatorial files) carries inscriptions in two different 18th-century hands: “Quadro di Tiziano rappresentante il Padre, e due Fratelli della Regina Cornaro” (Picture by Titian representing the father and two brothers of the Queen [Caterina] Cornaro); and “In segno di vera stima, di gratitudine, e amicizia / All’onorato Suo Signore e Amico / Cav. G.o Hamilton / Antonio Canova” (As a token of true esteem, gratitude and friendship, to his honored friend Cavalier G. Hamilton, from Antonio Canova).
In an unpublished study of the picture of 1972, Douglas Lewis, formerly curator of sculpture at the National Gallery of Art, identified this “G. Hamilton” as the Scottish painter and dealer Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798), who was resident in Rome from 1748, and who played an important part in promoting Canova’s early career. Almost certainly, however, Canova’s dedicatee was William Richard Hamilton (1777–1859), and the initial—the orthography of which indeed appears to read “G.o”—stands for “Guglielmo” (see Provenance).
When the picture first appeared on the art market in 1929, Detlev von Hadeln identified the subject as the conferral of a benefice by an unknown cardinal on a youth in the presence of his father. In his detailed study of 1972, Lewis provided a convincing identification of all three sitters and advanced a range of suggestions regarding the circumstances of the commission. Noting that the inscription on the label on the back identifying the sitters cannot for historical reasons be correct, Lewis nevertheless deduced that they represent members of a subsequent generation of the wealthy and powerful Corner family of Venice. He confirmed this deduction by identifying the cardinal as Marco Corner (1482–1524), nephew of Queen Caterina, on the basis of an anonymous portrait medal [fig. 1]. Since the reverse of the medal carries an inscription describing the subject as Cardinal of San Marco in Rome, a title that he received only seven months before his death in July 1524, the medal must date from this brief period; and since the painted portrait, in strict and archaic profile, is manifestly based on the medal (rather than vice versa), a terminus ante quem of 1524, at least for the right side of the painting, is thereby established. Cardinal Marco was the holder of numerous ecclesiastical benefices, the two most lucrative of which were the Benedictine abbeys of San Zeno in Verona and of Carrara Santo Stefano, south of Padua; and in 1519 he formally agreed to pass them on respectively to two of his Corner nephews: Andrea, son of his elder brother Giacomo, and Marco, son of his younger brother Girolamo.
Lewis proposed that the triple portrait commemorates the bestowal of the lucrative abbacy of Carrara on the youthful Marco (1513–1546), in the presence of the boy’s father Girolamo (c. 1485–1551). The chief argument against identifying the figures on the left as Giacomo and Andrea Corner is that the former was made senator in 1519 and would thereafter naturally have been portrayed in his official toga; further, Giacomo’s possessions, including any family portraits, would have been lost in the devastating fires that consumed each of the family palaces in which he lived, respectively in 1532 and 1535. Girolamo’s possessions, by contrast, were housed in a third family palace, the so-called Palazzo Corner della Regina at San Cassiano, where they remained until they were dispersed toward the end of the 18th century. Girolamo spent most of his earlier life in Candia (Crete), where the family had important commercial interests, and returned to live in Venice only in 1537. He is known, however, from the copious diaries of Marin Sanudo to have spent three years on a return visit to the city between 1517 and 1520—at the very time, in other words, that his brother Cardinal Marco conferred the benefice of Carrara on Girolamo’s eldest son, Marco. Since Girolamo would not have been available to sit for his portrait after July 1520, Lewis proposed that the central figure—qualitatively the finest of the three—dates from the summer of that year; and consistent with this proposal is the fact that, as pointed out by Hadeln, the style of his costume and hair corresponds to the fashion of the second decade, and would already have been completely outmoded by the mid-1520s. Lewis accordingly concluded that the group portrait, although planned from the beginning to commemorate the event of 1519, was painted in two phases, with the figure of Girolamo painted on the eve of his return to Crete, and that of the cardinal, who was in Rome throughout the period of his brother’s visit, added posthumously in 1524 or soon afterward. Young Marco did not accompany his father back to Crete, but remained in Venice under the guardianship of his grandfather Zorzi Corner; and since he appears in the portrait as an adolescent rather than as a seven-year-old child, it may be assumed that his present figure was executed contemporaneously with that of his uncle and namesake. Consistent with Lewis’s conclusion that the portrait was worked on in more than one phase are the extensive pentimenti revealed by the x-radiographs [fig. 2], including a radical change to the head of the boy. A portrait medal of Girolamo in classicizing profile, made much later, in 1540, by Giovanni da Cavino, shows features that are at least consistent with those of the central figure [fig. 3]. No other portrait of the younger Marco is known.
Girolamo did not return from Crete until 1537. Soon afterward he was elected a member of the powerful magistracy of the Council of Ten, and in 1539–1540 he served as capitano of Padua. At this time he commissioned an important fresco cycle from Domenico Campagnola, Stefano della Arzere, and others in the Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo del Capitaniato, and the construction by the architect Michele Sanmicheli of the bastion on the city walls that still bears the Corner name.
The attribution of the portrait is controversial. When first publishing it in 1929, Hadeln attributed it to Titian, and dated it to circa 1520. Walter Heil, Wilhelm Suida, Lionello Venturi, and Burton Fredericksen and Federico Zeri agreed with this opinion. However, the picture was ignored by Hans Tietze, Francesco Valcanover, Rodolfo Pallucchini, and most other writers, and Harold Wethey explicitly rejected it, describing it as “the work of a minor master” of circa 1530. Lewis reasserted the view of Hadeln and drew attention to the traditional attribution to Titian recorded on the 18th-century label on the back. Basing his opinion largely on his investigation of the identities and biographies of the sitters, Lewis also claimed the central figure of Girolamo Corner now represented Titian’s earliest dated portrait. Lewis explained the unsatisfactory aspects of the portrait, and in particular the uncharacteristically disjointed composition and the stilted, uncommunicative expression of Cardinal Marco, with reference to the unfavorable circumstances surrounding the commission, and also to its present abraded and overpainted condition; but he also emphasized the high quality of certain areas, and especially of the figure of Girolamo.
More recently, and without access to Lewis’s paper, Paul Joannides has attributed the painting to an “Associate of Titian,” circa 1520. Also noting the disjointed composition, he suggested that each of the three heads was based on a separate portrait by Titian and that they were combined in the present unsatisfactory way in the manner of a much-later painting from Titian’s workshop, the so-called Titian and His Friends in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court (see illustration in entry on Andrea de’ Franceschi). As has been seen, the head of Cardinal Marco must date from after 1524; and if the figure of Girolamo is not by Titian himself, as suggested by Lewis, but a copy after an independent portrait, painted between 1517 and 1520 but now lost, then the picture as a whole is likely to date from the mid- to late 1520s. The present badly abraded condition of the painting makes the authorship of the central figure almost impossible to determine; but against Lewis it may be argued that it is difficult to imagine Titian bringing the central figure of a triple portrait to a high level of completion while leaving the figure on the right a complete blank. In favor, however, of at least some direct involvement by Titian in the commission, even if he delegated the execution to an assistant, is the fact that the Corner family was one of the wealthiest and most influential in Venice. It may also be noted that the original idea for a monumental column in the left background corresponds to similar motifs in other works of the early 1520s, notably the Ca’ Pesaro altarpiece of 1519–1526 (Frari, Venice). Lewis suggested that the work was commissioned by the powerful cavalier and procurator of San Marco, Giorgio (Zorzi) Corner (1454–1527), brother to the queen of Cyprus, father of Cardinal Marco and Girolamo, and guardian of the younger Marco; but it is perhaps equally likely that it was commissioned by Girolamo in 1519, at the time of the conferral of the benefice. In that case, the return of Girolamo to Crete in 1520, and the continuing absence of Marco, would have removed the pressure on Titian to complete the painting himself, especially at a moment when he was under siege from numerous other important patrons, from within Venice and especially from elsewhere in northern Italy.
March 21, 2019