MORONI, Giovanni Battista
(b. 1525, Albino, d. 1578, Bergamo)

Portrait of a Gentleman

c. 1550
Oil on canvas, 202 x 106 cm
National Gallery, London

That the subject of this haunting portrait was a soldier is apparent from the shiny pieces of plate armour (of local manufacture) at his feet and from his costume of leather doublet, chain mail, under-doublet of black satin and the plain white linen collar of the shirt worn beneath. (The long sword is less a military appurtenance than a badge of nobility.) His legs are encased in black trunks and hose; he wears a brace to correct the weakening of the muscles of his left ankle, a condition known as 'drop-foot', caused either by disease or a wound. His Italian nickname, 'Il Cavaliere dal Piede Ferito' (Knight of the Wounded Foot), refers to this. Standing firm with legs wide apart, he leans lightly on a magnificent jousting helmet crested with ostrich plumes and surmounted by a red disk, carved with the sun's face, from which rises a rare and costly osprey feather. Less extravagant ostrich plumes curl on his black velvet cap.

Like many of Moroni's sitters the cavaliere is posed against a shallow light-coloured background of marble and part-ruined stone to which ivy, emblem of fidelity, clings and from which seedlings sprout. The background serves many functions: it justifies the semblance of outdoor light while keeping our attention from wandering off through a distant landscape; it sets off the sitter's slender silhouette with its complex outline; its neutral tone combines and echoes the hard colours of costume and helmet, and the matt surface provides a foil for the whole range of textures in the sitter's dress, armour, flesh and hair; it provides a geometric grid within which the figure is firmly anchored; and it furnishes a ledge on which to place the helmet and give the sitter something to do with his left arm, motivating the hand's negligently elegant gesture. Finally, the eroded architecture suggests endurance, a metaphor for the knight himself.