The Papal Legate: an Italian portrait of Cardinal Wolsey?

This week we drove to London to show this  panel portrait of Cardinal Wolsey to a couple of old friends in the business.


Replica Sixteenth Century frame by ARG Restoration.

It’s on an oak panel, just over 12 x 10 inches, so far so English, the sort of painting that was produced in the late C16th and early C17th when Wolsey’s reputation had begun to rise again after George Cavendish’s Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinall, his Lyffe and Deathe 1554 – 1558 had begun to circulate in manuscript. The text was certainly read by Shakespeare, who used it as a source for Henry VIII or All Is True 1613, a collaboration with John Fletcher. The quality of Cavendish’s prose was such that, Samuel Weller Singer says, ‘Shakespeare merely put Cavendish’s language into verse,’ so I must read  it.

But there was something unusual about the technique. There was underdrawing, visible in the shading to the side of the nose, conventional enough, but the application of paint was smoother than you’d expect in an English corridor portrait. A Nineteenth Century wax seal on the back of the panel suggested that it had been on the Continent at some point.

The shield on the seal could belong to one of three European families but, given what my friend deduced about the handling, the likeliest candidate is a Florentine noble banking house. I had been trying to see the painting as an English portrait which had gone overseas at some stage, but he pointed out the way the red is laid on in glazes over a white ground, a typically Italian technique. It was a Damascene moment – a wonderful instance of an expert eye being able to ‘see’ a painting in its entirety at once – and for all its oak support, the portrait was very probably painted in Italy.

There are Continental corridor sets which include English grandees, much as European political heavyweights figure in the corridor set at Knole, for example. The Walker Art Gallery has a curious painting, attributed to a Northern Italian painter c.1600, which seems to be a Wolsey type reworked into a portrait of King Henry VIII.

WAG Italian Wolsey.jpg

(c) Walker Art Gallery.

Cardinal Wolsey had specific connections with Italian patrons; as well as the Papacy itself, whose Legate he was from 1524, his fellow members of the College of Cardinals, or the bankers from whom he borrowed money to finance his campaign for a red hat, there were two absentee Italian Bishops of Worcester during Henry’s reign. Wolsey acted as agent for his friend Silvestro de’ Gigli until the Bishop died in 1521, when the See was administered for a year by Cardinal Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, better known to English history as Pope Clement VII. The last Bishop before the Reformation was Girolamo Ghinucci, Secretary to Pope Julius II, who was Bishop of Worcester from 1522 until his expulsion from the See by the King in 1535.

Any of these might have had an original portrait of Cardinal Wolsey, which could have been the source for later images. There is something particularly Italian about Wolsey’s profile portrait. It reminds me of images of Dante, or Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Federico da Montefeltro Duke of Urbino in the Uffizi. Wolsey was a great patron of Italian artists and craftsmen, and it remains a mystery what the exact source was for the likeness that appears c.1590 onwards as part of the English corridor set.

Wolsey’s original portrait is usually assumed to have been painted c.1520, but he could easily have sat as early as 1515 when he was first made a cardinal; if so, this small panel might be quite close to the original. The sitter’s face resembles the earlier likeness preserved in a drawing at Arras more than the later English portraits which have a tendency to caricature.

So, an intriguing painting, and I was pleased to sell it to them. It was a good result, and I was reminded of a friend the same age as me who scored a try the other day on the eve of his 46th birthday. I’m not sure if selling to a fellow dealer quite counts as getting the ball over the line, compared with the coveted museum sale, or a priv. coll. But sometimes you have to pass to someone in a better position to score. It’s good still to be in the game.

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