Great Works: Portrait of a Poet c.1516 (83.8x63.5cm) Palma Vecchio

National Gallery, London

This painting by Palma Vecchio, a 16th-century painter of the Venetian school (he may well have studied with Titian and Giorgione) has played cat and mouse with scholars and museum directors down the years. When it was first acquired by the National Gallery in 1860, it was said to be by Titian, and to be a portrait of the poet Ludovico Ariosto, painted in 1516, the year of the publication of his masterpiece, Orlando Furioso. If this were true – as it was believed to be in those years – the portrait itself could then be said to be a portrait of celebration, whose degree of idealisation was justified by the quality of the writing and the fame of the writer.

Since then, much of this has been cast into doubt. It is now known to be by Palma Vecchio, and it may not in fact be a portrait of Ariosto at all. It is certainly idealised, but Palma Vecchio was inclined to idealise many of his sitters, whether male or female. For all that, it is still described as a portrait of a poet. So perhaps the painting is to be regarded as a kind of generic portrait of a poet.

There are certainly various trappings of poetry present in the painting. The extraordinarily abundant laurel bush which appears to be encircling – in fact, it is almost engulfing – the sitter's head, puts us in mind of the laurel crown of Apollo, that god of music and poetry, which has been any half-decent poet's imaginative aspiration since the dawn of antiquity. The doubly be-ribboned book on which his left forearm rests so easily might well be a book of poems, locked away, so delicately, against the indelicate scrutiny of the hoi polloi. From the wrist of that left hand hangs a rosary, which the poet seems to be dandling – which might suggest that his wise words are being guided at all times by the hand of God, that his concerns are as much spiritual as poetic.

As we look at this portrait, we ask ourselves: who or what is the person of the poet if this man is indeed a successful example of the versifying tribe? Poets have been called so many different things down the years: seers, mountebanks, doctors of the soul, popular entertainers. Perhaps many of them are a rich soup concocted from all these ingredients in various proportions.

The poet on view in this painting is clearly set apart from us. The delicate poise and pose of this beautifully arrayed young man quite take us aback. His stance is ravishing in its almost mystical casualness. His body is twisted, just a touch, to the left, but his face makes a slight counter-turn to the right, so far that he does not quite meet our eye.

Is there the poet's characteristic "visionary gleam" in that eye? Well, not exactly. Commentators have talked about this man's "dreaminess" because that too is said to define a poet. But the idea of dreaminess is also a cliché, so we should be wary of it. The sweet solemnity of his stare, that look askance, never towards us – he does not want to meet our gaze – is that of a poet who is taking a longer view. You could also say that the look is acutely self-conscious – like the pose and the garments too, the way he is wearing them, the fur wrap slipped so casually off the right shoulder, the way the tunic peeps out from beneath it (but only just), and also the way in which the gold chain is looped six times around the neck, rather languidly.

This poet is a gentleman poet, a minor aristocrat of a very particular and favoured kind, who is out to make his mark. He needs to look like a poet, and part of that is cutting a dash rather in the way that this young man is doing. He is not concerned with the things at his feet. He is not concerned with the onlookers – except in so far as he is inwardly preoccupied by the way in which they are looking at him, rather enthralled. Yes, he is convinced of that. They look once, and then he is almost sure that they stop in their tracks and look again. In short, he is proud of himself. He is proud of his handsomeness, the costly puffing out of the sleeve of his tunic, the way that one gloved hand is clasping the other hand's grey glove. There is something delicately alluring about the way that captive glove is being crumpled, something almost cruel – quite the opposite of the detachment of his look.

But where is he exactly? In fact, we don't have any clear idea of his location at all. Is he indoors or outdoors? Is he leaning on a parapet, and resting his book on it too? Age and grime have not helped – this painting evidently needs a clean. His face is wonderfully sharp though, as is that brilliant white smock. His face is bathed in a very particular light. In fact, so near perfect is it in its proportions and general presentation – look how that beard is trimmed, and how finely and perfectly divided that moustache is – that we would scarcely believe we were looking at a model of such earthly perfections were it not, perhaps, for that delicate suggestion of concavity on the right-hand side of the nose, which is so cunningly emphasised by the way in which the shadow sculpts into it.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Palma Vecchio (c.1480-1528), born in Serimalta near Bergamo, was an Italian painter of the Venetian school who may have studied with Giorgione and Titian. Their work had a considerable influence upon his – as did his upon the work of artists such as Moretto and Romanino. He favoured blond beauties and figures of ample proportion, and painted a number of Sacra Conversazioni. His reputation was established by an altarpiece of 1520, painted for the church of St Antonio.Although he was much celebrated during his lifetime, he undertook few commissions in public spaces in Venice.

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