All That Glistens
Circle of Antonio Abondio
Riva del Garda 1538 – 1591 Vienna
Portrait of Henri de Lorraine, Duc de Guise (1550-1588)
oil and gold highlights on copper, in a round, engraved gilt bronze frame adorned with blue enamel cabochons on silver (Spain, ca. 1620)
4 inches Ø
Larger than a miniature but smaller than a painting, the present medallion is an object meant to be placed in a showcase and intended to be admired up close. The remarkably delicate painting emphasizes the contrast between the subtle modelling of the features with their transparent shading, the golden highlights of the hair, the flat, geometrical treatment of the cape and the opaque background. The portrait, which reveals the sure hand of a mature artist who was used to working in miniature, was probably different from the artist’s usual production, making the comparison with other works more difficult. The perfect mastery of the oil on copper technique would seem to indicate Flemish training, although the painter demonstrates familiarity with very diverse traditions and trends. He is, for example, able to blend the tight focus and profile view of the medals of de Leone and Pompeo Leoni, the blue backgrounds of Hans Holbein the Younger and François Clouet, the precision of Anthonis Mor, and the sculptural quality of Bronzino. He was almost certainly a court artist who knew how to satisfy a sophisticated and demanding princely clientele that desired lavish, perfectly staged, and complex works featuring multiple allusions and subtle cross-referencing.
The comparison of our portrait to Jean Decourt’s profile of Charles IX at the same age proves it could not be him, although that attribution was suggested by one of the portrait’s former owners, who scrawled “carolus rex” on the reverse (Hermitage Museum, inv. no. 2918). Actually, everything seems to designate Henri de Lorraine, the future leader of the Catholic League who became Duc de Guise upon the death of his father. Born in 1550, he would have been only thirteen at the time. Another portrait of the young Henri dates from shortly after his induction into the Order. The original portrait, no doubt by François Clouet, has been lost, but is known to us through three sketches in albums of copies, of which the one in Fécamp is the best (Les Pêcheries-Musée de Fécamp, inv. no. FEC.12). The duke’s features are exactly the same, as is his upswept hair and his characteristic manner of wearing the Order, on a ribbon that is looped twice around the neck.
A member of one of the younger branches of the House of Lorraine, elevated to a duchy peerage by Francis I, Henri was the youngest son of Francis, the second Duc de Guise, and Anna d’Este. He received a truly princely education under the astute supervision of his uncle Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine. As a result, he had an elegant hand, spoke with eloquence, possessed broad general knowledge and a taste for the arts, and had an insatiable thirst for glory and power. This copper portrait fits perfectly within the complex network of imagery constituted by the Guise family, founded on a political and moral position that considered the members of the family to be the perfect embodiments of aristocratic excellence. The ‘Balafré’s’ dignified bearing, his personal magnetism, his grace and accomplishments as a courtier and his princely charisma were not just qualities he wanted depicted in his portraits; they were truly part of his character. It is therefore not surprising that the present portrait, which is a perfect example of the ‘splendor and authority of a king’ that had been attributed to the Duc de Guise from childhood, was for a time thought to depict Charles IX.
It seems judicious to compare our portrait to that of Antonio Abondio (1538-1591), and particularly to the wax relief depicting Alfonso II d’Este, Guise’s uncle, made for his 1565 marriage to Barbara of Austria (Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest, inv. no. 19153). One of the most important medallists of the Renaissance, and the first to make use of colored wax, Abondio had been the ‘Konfettor’ (portraitist) of the Vienna court since 1556. His eclectic style blended Italian, German, and Flemish influences, as does our portrait. If not by Abondio himself – there are no known paintings by him – then this portrait would be by an artist of the Venetian Court who was probably in charge of furnishing the medallist with models. ❖
inscribed ‘Carolus Rex’ on the reverse, later scratched
Private collection, France
Alexandra Zvereva, Kings, Aristocrats and Humanists: Portraits from the French Renaissance, Paris, 2019, pp. 158-166, no. 17.