Giorgio Vasari only included Paris Bordone’s biography in the second, 1568 edition of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects after meetingthe Venetian painter two years previously. As early as 1518, however, Bordone had been mentioned by several sources as active in Venice. He learned his craft from Titian and Giorgione, the latter’s manner playing an especially important part in the development of his style. In Vasari’s telling, “He was much grieved that Giorgione should have died in those days, whose manner pleased him vastly, and even more his reputation for having taught well and willingly, and with lovingness, all that he knew... And so, setting himself to labour and to counterfeit the work of that master, he became such that he
acquired very good credit.”1 Of Giorgione’s method Bordone retained the chromatic unity between figures and landscape.

In the early 1530s Bordone’s palette became colder and his compositions tended to be more complex and dynamic. He was travelling extensively and accepted numerous commissions in northern Italy – Treviso, Milan, etc. – but also elsewhere in Europe: he worked for the Fugger banking family, based in Augsburg, in southern Germany, and, very probably, at the court of François I at Fontainebleau. Unfortunately very little in the way of documentary material or paintings from this period has survived.

Given that his works were almost never signed or dated, there has long been speculation in matters of attribution. The Presentation of the Ring, one of the Bordone masterpieces now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, was doubtless commissioned for the Scuola Grande di San Marco in 1533–1535; executed around 1545, it is typical of the large religious and mythological compositions in which he deploys remarkable, Serlio-inspired buildings and a profusion of the complicated perspectives that were much appreciated by the Mannerists.

Yet he was, at the same time, an excellent portraitist. Best known for his society portraits of beauteous Venetian ladies and embracing lovers, he also painted male subjects embodying the Venetian taste for muted yet sensual skin tones. Our Portrait of a Bearded Man is one of the handsomest examples of the portraits of his maturity. While similar in pose and aspect to his famous Jérôme Craft (1540), now in the Louvre, our painting is more closely focused on the face and, obeying a formula recurrent in his portraits, limits its setting to a few details: a stucco frieze ornamented with plant motifs set against a trompe l’oeil marble wall. A copy of a slightly different format and even more closely focused on the face appeared on the market early in 2012. Peter Humphrey had confirmed its attribution to Bordone and proposed dating it to 1550, while Andrea Donati catalogued it as a reduced copy.2

The gentleness emanating from the subject’s features is channelled by the colorito that establishes an admirable tonal harmony between the tawny fur, the red beard and the delicate pinks of the complexion. The tension between our emotional response to the young man’s melancholia and our delectation in the picture’s painterly effects is eloquent testimony to Bordone’s power to charm.
(G.P., trad. J.T.)

 

 

1. Giorgio Vasari, “Description of the Works of Tiziano Da Cadore, Painter”, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans Gaston du C. de Vere (London: Macmillan and Co. & The Medici Society, 1912–1914), accessed at https:// ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/v/vasari/giorgio/lives/index.html
2. Donati, 2014, p. 379, spotted the error made by Humphrey, who had attributed the provenance of our picture to the version sold by Sotheby’s.

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