Spotlight / Raphael’s Bindo Altoviti

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Raphael, Bindo Altoviti, oil on panel, c.1515, 59.7 x 43.8 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Shown here is Raphael’s portrait of papal banker and aristocrat Bindo Altoviti. Bindo’s connections and friendships with artists including Michelangelo and Giorgio Vasari meant he became a reputable and influential patron of the arts amid the first half of the sixteenth century. He was widely respected in the papal courts and famously advised under Popes Leo X and Clement VII. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, the Altoviti family became one of the leading curial bankers and were entitled to control a large sum of papal funds. Bindo maintained a strong connection to the arts throughout his life, and this can be witnessed in the many works that emerged in response to his friendships amid reputable artistic circles. One such work is Raphael’s portrait of the young Bindo, commissioned by the sitter himself and completed around 1515.

What is so striking about this portrait is the absence of a scenic background. Instead, Raphael has chosen to showcase his subject in front of a dark, velvet-like background with great tangible effect. The dark shadows amid the green give the portrait depth and movement whilst accentuating the focal point of the image – Bindo himself. A hidden source of light streams in from one side that light Bindo’s face and casts a shadow behind. His body is positioned facing away from the observer whilst his neck and face are gently turned in the opposite direction. It feels as if we have caught Bindo in a moment of quiet reprise, perhaps in his natural place of solitude. He appears pensive but not unsettled, disrupted but not disturbed. Raphael has depicted Bindo is such a way that shows no signs of performance or pretence. His hand is placed gently on his chest, suggestive of graciousness and ease. It has been suggested that this feature was intended for the admiration of Bindo’s wife, Fiammetta Soderini, as the pair were married one year prior to the portrait’s commission. The addition of the slightly tinted cheeks and soft gaze reinforces the observation that this is a portrait indebted to the love between husband and wife.

The portrait remained in the home of the Altoviti family until it was sold in the early nineteenth century. It went on to be displayed in the Alte Pinakotheck gallery in Munich before becoming entangled in the numerous lost and seized paintings of Nazi Germany. Its purchase and subsequent salvation by American collector Samuel H. Kress finally led to its donation to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1943. After fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe for America in 1948, the Austrian art historian W. E. Suida published his monograph on Raphael. He writes that Raphael’s art ‘rises above what is problematical…it is felicitous and perfect…capable of dissolving all conflicts of life into the pure harmonies of a higher existence.’ The portrait remains in Washington to this day, where it continues to captivate viewers through its tranquil perfection and grace.

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