Vittore Ghislandi, called Fra Galgario, was born in 1655 in Bergamo to a perspective and landscape painter, Domenico Ghislandi (active 1656-1672). After a period of initial training in his native city with painters of purely local renown, Vittore continued his education in Venice between 1675 and 1688. There he became a lay brother in the monastery of San Francesco di Paolo, though writers who have doubted the seriousness of his vocation have insinuated that he did so maerely in order to gain financial support for his studies. According to early sources, he studied the works of Titian and Veronese above all. This initial contact with the great tradition of portraiture proved decisive for his later development, and Ghislandi became best known as a portraitist, although he also painted a number of history paintings, no longer extant, in Venice and Bergamo.
In 1688, Ghislandi returned briefly to Bergamo before returning again to Venice, where he was assistant to the portraitist Sebastiano Bombelli (1635-1719) for the next twelve years. During this second Venetian period Ghislandi painted the portraits of important Venetian nobles, and apparently became something of a rival to Bombelli, as the sources related that he left the studio under the cloud of the master's envy.
Sometime after 1702, Ghislandi returned definitively to Bergamo where he entered the monastery of Galgario (hence his other name). He immediately became the painter most often chosen to paint both official and private portraits of the local gentry, and his clientele also included Milanese patrons, where he often worked briefly. At this time he must also have begun to paint the many genre portraits for which he is perhaps best known. In this painting type, called by contemporaries "capricious heads" (capricciose teste), Ghislandi embellished his portrayals of lower class characters by adding attributes of fanciful or allegorical subject matter. Such character heads seem to have been suggested to Ghislandi by Rembrandt through the mediation of the German painter Solomon Adler (1630-1709), whom Ghislandi knew in Milan. These heads had been a component of Venetian taste earlier in the century, too. Ghislandi's achievement in portraiture lies in his innovative combination of genre conventions with those of aristocratic portraiture, and he achieved a great deal of international renown for both his real and imaginary portrayals.
He was made a member of the Accademia Clementina of Bologna after a trip to that city in 1717. Though he had some pupils who continued his style, none achieved his success or attained his originality. He died in Bergamo in 1743.
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Gozzoli, Maria Cristina. "Vittore Ghislandi detto Fra' Galgario." In I pittori bergamaschi dal XIII al XIX secolo. 6 vols. Bergamo (1975--), 1982: 5, part 1:1-195.
Frangi, Francesco. "Vittore Ghislandi." In Settecento Lombardo. Exh. cat. Palazzo Reale, Milan; Museo della Fabbrica del Duomo, Milan, 1991: 72-80.
De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 112-113.