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The art of diplomacy: Velazquez's portrait of Francesco l d'Este is one of the highlights of the Galleria Estense in Modena. It has now been loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to raise awareness of the damage caused by the 2012 earthquake in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

The earthquake that hit northeastern Italy in May 2012 caused significant damage to the artistic patrimony of the Emilia-Romagna region, and in particular to the cities of Mantua, Ferrara and Modena. Almost 1,300 architectural complexes of historical importance were severely scarred. In the province of Modena alone the damage has been quantified ar more than 700 million [euro]. The soprintendenze and the Italian Ministry of Culture have been active in salvaging monuments and works of art. The baroque palace of Sassuolo, south of Modena, has been transformed into a large laboratory in which more than 1,200 works of art have been sheltered. Teams of restorers are at work on paintings and sculptures that have been damaged by the earthquake. The Galleria Estense in Modena was among the Italian museums badly hit: substantial damage to the building means that the museum remains closed, while work is carried out to make the architectural structure safe.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in collaboration with the Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici di Modena e Reggio Emilia and the Galleria Estense, has organised a special exhibition to raise awareness outside Italy--and in particular in the United States--of the catastrophic situation caused by the earthquake. The Soprintendente of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Stefano Casciu, and the the staff of the Soprintendenza and of the Galleria Estense have been at the forefront of the recovery activities in the region, and were instrumental in bringing this plea from Emilia-Romagna to America. The exhibition 'Velazquez's Portrait of Duke Francesco I d'Este: A Masterpiece from the Galleria Estense, Modena' (16 April-14 July 2013) brings one of the Galleria Estense's treasures to the States for the first time. The portrait of the duke (Fig. 1), by one of the greatest painters of western art, is a fitting ambassador from Modena to New York, displaying the artistic wealth and importance of the Galleria Estense and drawing attention to the aftermath of the 2012 earthquake.

The Galleria Estense, like the city of Modena, developed and acquired its present character largely during the rule of Duke Francesco I (1610-58) in the 17th century. The city had been part of the Duchy of Ferrara, given in concession by the pope to the Este family since the Middle Ages. In 1598, after the end of the male legitimate line of the Este, Ferrara was reclaimed by Pope Clement VIII and returned to the Papal States. The last duke's illegitimate son, Cesare d'Este, moved his court to Modena, a city under imperial supervision. The Este therefore transformed Modena into the new capital of their dukedom, and Francesco was instrumental in this refashioning of the city.



Francesco was the son of Duke Alfonso III and of Isabella of Savoy. (1) In 1629, when he was only 19 years old, his father abdicated and retired to become a Capuchin monk in Tyrol. Francesco inherited a complex and difficult political situation. Europe was in the midst of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which saw the two principal powers, France and Spain, pitted against one another. The main action took place in central Europe and the war, which was fundamentally a religious one between Catholic and Protestant forces, quickly developed into a much more complex situation, which affected countries throughout Europe. The Duchy of Modena was hardly one of the prominent political forces in the war, but the duke found himself ruling one of the strategic points in the Italian peninsula; the dukedom was particularly important for the Spanish crown, because it was geographically placed on the principal route between their Italian possessions of Naples and Milan. The duke spent his entire reign in a diplomatic and political game, trying to ensure the future of Modena within the ever-shifting landscape of allegiances between larger powers.

During the first decade of his rule, Francesco aligned Modena with Spain. The economic links with Spain were particularly strong, and the duke was in search of funds for Modena, as well as a higher title for himself. He was undoubtedly aiming for a royal title, possibly that of Sardinia, and was keen on being allowed to be known as altezza, a step higher than his neighbours, the dukes of Mantua and Parma. Francesco also hoped for the eventual recovery of Ferrara for his family, a dream never eventually realised. Blood ties strengthened his links to Spain and with the Habsburgs. Through his mother, Francesco was the great-grandson of King Philip II of Spain, and was therefore also second cousin to the present king, Philip IV (Fig. 4). As early as 1637, it was rumoured that Francesco himself might travel to Spain to meet the king and forge stronger links between the two countries, and in January 1638 the ambassador of Modena to Spain, Count Fulvio Testi, officially announced Francesco's visit to Madrid, which was to take place later that year. (2) The Spanish diplomatic machine started moving its wheels immediately. The prime minister Gaspar de Guzman, the Count-Duke of Olivares (Fig. 5), was in constant touch with Modena through Testi, and with the king and the Council of State (Consejo de Estado). The two main issues discussed before the duke's trip were practical matters of protocol: where Francesco was to be accommodated while in Madrid, and how he should be referred to. Strict instructions came from Modena that the duke had to be referred to as 'your highness ... being most resolute not to want under any circumstance to be your excellency'. (3)

At the end of August 1638, Francesco disembarked in Barcelona, where the viceroy welcomed him. He officially entered Madrid on 24 September. The procession through the city to the royal palace was an impressive sight; a contemporary description focused on Francesco's white horse--'pale horror for any icy cloud'--and Olivares's black one 'that looked like an obscure miscarriage of the night or the caliginous child of the abyss'. (4) For the king, who welcomed the duke warmly and called him 'cousin', the arrival coincided with two happy occasions: the Spanish victory over the French troops at Fuenterrabia and, on a more personal note, the birth of the Infanta Maria Teresa on 10 September. The Duke of Modena was ecstatic with the reception, and wrote to his brother Rinaldo that 'I receive all the conceivable satisfaction, because certainly I am honoured in the right manner and the encounter with the king was most solemn'. (5) While in Madrid, he was given the apartments of the Count-Duke of Olivares on the ground floor of the new Buen Retiro Palace, built for the king near the church of San Jeronimo el Real and inaugurated in 1633. Francesco was the first official guest of the king to be housed at the Buen Retiro, and was highly impressed by the building (Fig. 2): 'this palace is marvellous for its architecture and for the paintings most beautiful in Europe ... There rooms are so many that one can get lost in them. There is a most beautiful garden. The place is more like a large city.' (6) There, he would have been able to inspect the significant collection of paintings belonging to Philip IV, many of which had been commissioned in Italy by the king. (7) One of the most impressive rooms in the palace was the Salon de Reinos, decorated with large battle scenes by different painters--including Velazquez's Surrender of Breda (1634-35)--and a series of equestrian portraits of the royal family (Fig. 3), also by Velazquez.



During his Spanish sojourn, Francesco was shown the main Royal residences and other Castilian sights. Apart from the Real Alcazar in Madrid and the Buen Retiro, he visited Aranjuez, El Pardo and the Torre de la Parada (also decorated with canvases by Velazquez and Rubens), Valsain and the monastery-palace of El Escorial. The king himself accompanied the duke on some of these trips and showed him around the buildings and art collections. Francesco travelled as far as Segovia, and was also allowed to visit the female convents of the Encarnacion and the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. Philip IV intended to impress his Modenese cousin and no doubt succeeded with a full calendar of events. On 7 October, Francesco was present at the baptism of the Infanta Maria Teresa (Fig. 7), officiated by the Archbishop of Seville, and acted as the princess's godfather. For this specific occasion he presented gifts to both the queen and the infanta: a casket containing relics, and jewels. Over the following days, the duke also assisted at a grand bullfight in the Plaza Mayor, sitting together with the royal family on their balcony.

While in Madrid, Philip IV honoured Francesco with the highest decoration of the Spanish crown, the Order of the Golden Fleece (Toison de Oro), bestowing the order on him and the heir to the throne, the Infante Bahasar Carlos, in a ceremony at the Alcazar on 24 October. He also gave further honorific titles to the duke. These included the roles of Viceroy of Catalonia, and Admiral of the Spanish fleet (General de los Oceanos). Over the month that Francesco spent in Spain, the king visibly displayed the favour in which he held his relative and political ally.

On 30 October, the trip was concluded with a series of exchanges of gifts between the two rulers. Gift-giving was a powerful diplomatic tool to forge and strengthen alliances between countries, and on this occasion Philip and Francesco's gifts clearly signalled the success of the Modenese mission. Francesco gave the king 16 horses and the queen a crystal casket with jewels; Olivares received a painting. In exchange, the king gave his cousin 12 horses and 16 mules. Another prominent gift, a jewel in the shape of an imperial eagle, is described in detail in a letter by Fulvio Testi of 14 November 1638: 'the king had given to Duke Francesco I a jewel in diamonds of the value of thirty-three thousand silver ducats. On the reverse of the eagle there was a tiny portrait of the king, painted by Velazquez, so life-like and so beautiful that it is certainly a marvellous thing.' (8)

One of the privileges bestowed on the duke during his stay in Madrid was his sitting for a portrait by the court painter, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), who had produced several portraits of the king and royal family. Influenced by the example of Venetian portraiture--Titian above all--and by the art of Rubens, who he had met in Madrid in 1628, Velazquez painted for the court some of the most beautiful royal images of the 17th century. Between 1629 and 1631, he had travelled to Italy and come into contact with the masters of the past, which directly informed his subsequent paintings.

From the correspondence of Fulvio Testi, it transpires that Velazquez was painting an equestrian portrait of Francesco I, soon after the duke had left Madrid. The first mention of this painting is in a letter from Francesco to Testi, from Cadaques on 21 November 1638: 'if the equestrian portrait of us that is being painted here [in Madrid] is beautiful when finished, we would like for you to send us a copy, but by the hand of the painter who has made the original.' (9) A few weeks later, on 6 December, Testi apologised to the duke from Madrid; he had been ill in bed with a fever and promised to talk to Velazquez to commission the copy for Francesco. He warned the duke, however, that the painter was expensive: 'he gets paid for his paintings more than Rubens or Guido Reni'. (10) In the spring of the following year, on 12 March 1639, Testi wrote to the duke again from Madrid: 'Velazquez is painting the portrait of your highness, which will be marvellous. He, however, has the defect, like other men of talent, of never finishing and of not telling the truth. I have given him 150 pieces of eight on account, and Marquis Virgilio [Malvezzi] has arranged a price of one hundred doubloons. He is expensive but he does good work; and certainly I hold his portraits in no less esteem than those of any famous painter, either ancient or modern. I will keep soliciting him.' (11) This is the last we hear of the equestrian portrait, which is lost or was, most likely, never finished. The large unfinished canvas with a white horse in the Royal Palace in Madrid (Fig. 6) has been connected to the portrait of Francesco I, but it is more likely to relate to the equestrian portrait of Olivares, also painted in those years. (12)


The documented equestrian portrait is lost, but the magnificent smaller image of Francesco I by Velazquez, now in Modena, must have also been painted in 1638 in Madrid. (13) The first mention of this portrait is as late as 1663, when it appears in an Este inventory as the 'Portrait of the Most Serene Duke Francesco, armed and with a red sash, painted in Spain by Velazquez, with a gold flame'; the canvas was displayed in the casino inhabited by Giacomo Monti. (14) Francesco I is shown in armour, with the red sash of the General de los Oceanos. He wears the typical Spanish starched linen collar known as the golilla. Before his trip to Spain, Testi had recommended that the duke learn some Spanish, and that he 'should leave behind all French fashions, and even his haircut, because this is a court where every thing is observed, and every thing is commented on'. (15) Against the metal of the armour shines the Golden Fleece, which dates the painting to after 24 October 1638, when the duke was given the title. Francesco must have sat for Velazquez between 25 and 30 October. It has been suggested that this may have been a preparatory work for the equestrian portrait, or an independent work based on a sketch from life. In any case, Francesco must have sat for Velazquez once, or on more occasions, and from this sitting the painter would have produced an image on which he based both the Modena and the equestrian portraits.


How the Galleria Estense painting reached Modena remains to be established. It is possible that the duke brought the canvas to Modena with him at the end of October 1638. In this case, Velazquez must have kept a sketch of the duke to base the equestrian portrait on. It is more likely that the portrait reached Modena later, possibly sent by Testi or physically brought back to Italy by one of the Modenese ambassadors to Spain returning home. In his 1724 biography of Velazquez, Antonio Palomino listed among his works the portrait of 'Francesco, Duke of Modena and of Reggio, done while he was in this Court of Madrid in the year 1638, when he was godfather to the Most Serene Infanta Dona Maria Teresa ... The Duke honoured Velazquez greatly, praising his rare genius, and since he had portrayed him much to his liking, he rewarded him most liberally, especially with a precious gold chain that Velazquez sometimes would wear around his neck, as was the custom on festive occasions at the Palace.' (16) Because the equestrian portrait was commissioned by Philip IV, and Francesco only asked for a copy of it on 21 November from Cadaques--not having seen the result--it is likely that the portrait mentioned by Palomino and admired by the duke was the one now in Modena.

Velazquez met Francesco d'Este a second time, in 1649 in Modena, on his second trip to Italy. By this date the political landscape in Italy and in Europe had changed substantially. After Francesco's successful journey to Spain, relations between him and Philip IV cooled down almost immediately. The reciprocal shower of gifts was the ending, rather than the beginning, of an effective political alliance. In trying to steer Modena through the tumultuous waters of international diplomacy, Francesco alternated between Spain and France, only to join the French side officially on the eve of the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, with the end of the Thirty Years War in sight. He died 10 years later, in 1658, just before peace between Spain and France was sanctioned in 1660, with the wedding of Philip IV's daughter, the Infanta Maria Teresa --the same girl to whom Francesco I had served as godfather in 1638 in Madrid--to King Louis XIV of France.


(1) For a biography of Francesco I, see Marina Romanello. 'Francesco I d'Este', in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. XLIX. Rome. 1997, pp. 731-37. For Modena and the artistic patronage of Francesco I, see Janet Southorn, Power and Display in the Seventeenth Century: The Arts and their Patrons in Modena and Ferrara, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 28-71; Alice Jarrard, Architecture as Performance in Seventeenth-century Europe: Court Rimai in Moden a, Rome, and Paris, Cambridge, 2003; Elena Fumagalli and Gianvittorio Signorotto, La corte estense nel primo Seicento: Diplomazia e mecenatismo artistico, Rome, 2012.

(2) For the most up to date account of Francesco I's visit to Madrid, see Mercedes Simal Lopez, 'La estancia en Madrid de Francesco I d'Este en 1638', in Fumagalli and Signorotto, op. cit. in n. 1 above, pp. 197-237.

(3) Ibid., p. 206.

(4) Ibid., p. 213.

(5) Ramon Menendez Pidal, La Espana de Felipe IV, Madrid, 1982, p. 740.

(6) Situai Lopez, op. cit. in n. 2 above, p.216.

(7) For the Buen Retiro and its decoration, see Jonathan Brown and J.H. Elliot, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip W, New Haven and London, 1980; Andres Ubeda de los Cobos (ed.), Paintings for the Planet King: Philip W and the Buen Retiro Pal ace, ex. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2005.

(8) Jose M. Pita Andrade, Corpus Velazqueno: Documentos y Textos, 2 vols., Madrid, 2000, vol. I, p. 130.

(9) 'Se il ritratto a cavallo che costi si fa di noi riesce buono, vogliamo che ce ne mandate una copia, ma di mano del pittore che faceva l'originale'; Archivio di Stato di Modena, Cancelleria Ducale, Estero, Ambasciatori in Spagna, busta 49, fol. 184; Pita Andrade. op. cit. in n. 8 above, vol. 1, p. 130.

(10) 'Hora ho avuto tempo di cercare il Velasquez, essendo io stato tutti questi giorni in letto con febbre: faro de lig.a per vederlo, e gli ordinero una copia del ritratto a cavallo. Sappi pero V.A. che costui anche valenthuomoper altro si fa pagare le sue pitture piu che lo fa il Rubens e Guido Reni'; Archivio di Stato di Modena, Cancelleria Ducale, Estero, Ambasciatoriin Spagna, Carteggio restituito da Madrid, Minute di lettere del Co. Testi, busta 49. fol. 313; Salvador Salort Pons, Velazquez en Italia, Madrid, 2002, p. 441, doc. a29.

(11) 'Il Velasco fa il Ritratto di V.A. che sara mirabile. Ha pero egli ancora il difetto degli altri Valenthuomini, cio e di non finir mai le cose, e di non dire mai la verita. Gili ho dato centocinquanta pezze da otto a bon conto, e dal March.e Virgilio il prezzo s'e aggiustato in cento doble. Egli e caro: ma fa bene; e certo che i suoi Ritratti io non gli stimo inferiori a quelli d' alcun'altro de'piu rinomati tra gli Antichi, o tra Moderni. Io l'andro sollecitando'; Arehivio di Stato di Modena, Cancalleria Ducale, Estero, Ambasciatori in Spagna, busta 49; Pita Andrade, op. cit. in n. 8 above, vol. 1, p. 135.

(12) Salort Pons, op. cit. in n. 10 above, pp. 194-95; Jose Manuel Cruz Valdovinos, Velazquez: Vida y obra de un pintor cortesano, Madrid, 2011, p. 224.

(13) For the portrait in Modena see especially, Adolfo Venturi, 'Velasquez e Francesco I d'Este', Nuova Antologia di Scienze, Lertere ed Arti, vol. XXIX (1881), pp. 44-57; Jonathan Brown, Velazquez: Painter and Courtier , New Haven and London, 1986, pp. 143-45; Manuela B. Mena Marques, 'Velazquez, pittore politico: il ritratto del cluca Francesco I', in Jadranka Bentini (ed.), Sovrane passioni: Le raccolte d'arte della Ducale Galleria Estense, exh. cat., Galleria Estense, Modena, 1998, pp. 100-05; Salvador Salort Pons in Felipe V. Garin Llombart and Salvador Salort Pons (eds.), Velazquez, exh. cat., Fondazione Menuno, Rome, 2001, pp. 204-05; Salort Pons, op. cit. in n. 10 above, pp. 185-221; 352-53, cat. 19; Filippo Trevisani in Alfonso E. Perez Sanchez and Nicola Spinosa (eds.), Velazqueza Capodimonte, exh. cat., Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, 2005, pp. 100-01, cat. 21; Dawson W. Carr (ed.), Velazquez, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2006, p. 186, cat. 28; Cruz Valdovinos, op. cit. in n. 12 above, pp. 222-24.

(14) 'Ritratto del Serenissimo Signor Duca Francesco arreato con banda rossa dipinto in Spagna dal Velaschi con cornice dorata ... Appresso Giacomo Monti nel casino che lui presentemente abita, che fu gia del signor Poggi'; Jadranka Bentini, Arredi, suppellettili e "pitture famose" degli Estensi: lnventari 1663, Modena, 1993, p. 69.

(15) '... lasciare tutte l'apparenze francesi, et anche la capigliatura perche questa e una corte dove s'osserva ogni cosa, e su ogni cosa si fa commento'; Simal Lopez, op. cit. in n. 2 above, p.215.

(16) Michael Jacobs (ed.), Lives of Velazquez by Francisco Pacheco and Antonio Palomino, trans. Nina Ayala Mallory, London, 2006, pp. 89-90.

Xavier Salomon is curator of Southern Baroque Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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Author:Salomon, Xavier F.
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Date:May 1, 2013
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