VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)
Oil on canvas, 179 x 94 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The satirical tradition had spread throughout Europe via the humanists, and Velázquez's knowledge of it is evident in his use of ideal types in portraits of the Cynic philosopher Menippus and the Greek composer of animal fables Aesop, possibly painted for the hunting lodge Torre de la Parada, near the Buen Retiro Palace. Both figures are shown full length and would have made suitable counterparts to the pictures of Democritus and Heraclitus by Rubens in the Torre de la Parada. It was here, too, that many of Velázquez's portraits of court fools and dwarfs were hung.
Aesop's face with its flattened nose was probably not - as is commonly thought - painted after a man of the people (even if the painting did attempt to show a simple man whose features were marked by toil, and who therefore represented the Cynic ideal of the modesty and wisdom of the people). The portrait seems rather more reminiscent of Giovanni Battista della Porta's physiognomic parallels between various types of human faces and the heads of animals associated with certain temperaments. Velázquez gave Aesop's face the fleshy features of the human "ox-head type" described in the physiognomical doctrines of della Porta, published in 1586, which calls Aesop's animal fables to mind.
Of greater importance, however, are the eyes: one almost feels that in the landscape of Aesop's face they are all that is left of the grounding of the canvas. They are deep-seated and probing, turned on the observer with a slight touch of contempt. Like the eyes of many of Velázquez's dwarfs and fools, their gaze is full of the irony that sees through convention. Aesop, who lived from about 620 to 560 BC, began life as a slave and died a violent death. In this picture his face, marked by suffering, shows the same simple dignity as that of the court jesters or country folk painted by Velázquez.
According to Plutarch, Aesop was a counsellor to the Lydian King Croesus (6th century). Velázquez was suggesting a parallel with the situation at the Spanish court. The two portraits of philosophers, together with the portraits of fools and dwarfs, were intended to warn the king not to lose touch with the common people and their wisdom.