(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)

Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin

1480 or later
Oil on oak panel, 30 x 22 cm
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

Apart from the Portrait of a Man in Florence, this is the only Memling portrait in which the subject looks directly at the viewer. The two works share other features too: the buttoned-up black tunic without fur edging; the shirt folded over the collar; the short black bonnet worn over dark, curly hair; the composition of the landscape; and the serrated edges of the clouds in the sky. They have thus been compared repeatedly. The man holds a coin in his left hand, which persuaded earlier authors to identify him as a medallist. It was suggested that the sitter was Niccolò di Forzore Spinelli, who died in Lyons, where the painting was purchased in the early nineteenth century. Others believed him to be Giovanni de Candida, but an authenticated portrait of Candida does not resemble the sitter of this work. The different authors were, however, at least able to agree that he was an Italian, a fact supported, in their view, by his appearance and the solitary palm tree in the landscape. The tree and the coin might well have an emblematic function, but there is no reason to interpret the former as a symbol of the subject's nationality.

The coin has been identified as a sestertius, struck in Lyons under Emperor Nero. The coin and the palm tree were link with the possible name of the subject: Nero (Neri, del Nero, Nerone, de Niro, etc.) and Palma (Palmieri) are common Italian forenames and surnames. Pictograms were popular motifs at the time, especially in Italian humanist circles. A third element, comprises the laurel leaves that appear at the bottom, just above the edge, which the man might be holding in his concealed right hand. This is another commonly used emblem in Italy, where it appears in coats-of-arms or denotes a name (Lorenzo, Allori). It is entirely possible, therefore, that the man wished his full name (three parts, including his father's name) to be incorporated in the portrait after the Italian fashion.

The work was originally identified as an Antonello da Messina, and even as his self-portrait. The portrait was first attributed to Memling in 1871, and it was maintained in the catalogue of the Hans Memling exhibition held in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges, in 1994. The present commentary is based on this catalogue edited by Dirk De Vos. The painting is usually dated to the very beginning of the artist's career. In view of the clothing and style, this portrait was certainly not painted before 1480.

However, at present the painting is displayed at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp as the portrait of Bernardo Bembo painted by Antonello da Messina in 1471-74.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.