A poet praised for his silence: Girolamo Casio painted by Boltraffio

Cristina Quattrini (from Nuovi Studi 26, 2021 anno XXVI)

A new interpretation of the “Allegory of Girolamo Casio” by Boltraffio, which celebrated the poet’s gift for silence and loyalty to the Medici

The Allegory of Girolamo Casio, a painting from early 16th century Bologna by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1465-1516), now in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire in Chatsworth, UK, owes part of its charm to the ambiguity of its dual subject. On its front, it depicts an elegant, androgynous young man with the initials “CB” embroidered in gold on the lapel. On the back is a skull in a niche with the inscription “INSIGNE SVM IERONYMI CASII” [I am the emblem of Girolamo Casio]. Over time, the front subject – the portrait of a woman perhaps – has been seen as an idealized image of Girolamo Casio (also known as Girolamo Pandolfi 1464-1533), or as an archetype of beauty, carrying messages of love or friendship between men in the cultured courts of the time. 

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, “Allegory of Girolamo Casio”. Duke of Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House.

This interpretation centers around Boltraffio’s familiarity with the intellectual circles of the Padan aristocrats at the turn of the 15th century and, with Casio especially, an author of poems that dealt with love and, above all, death. Significant is the epitaph he wrote for Boltraffio himself:

L’unico elievo dl Vinci Leonardo, Beltraffio/ Che co’l Stile & co’l pennello / Di Natura facea ogni huom più bello/ Morì ch’l Ciel non fu a rapirlo tardo. 

[“Leonardo da Vinci’s only pupil, Beltraffio / with his style and brush / made every man more beautiful than reality / the heavens took him way too early.”]

The penultimate verse has sometimes been read not so much as a comparison between nature and painting, but rather as evidence of a portraiture that would sublimate its subjects into ideal images instead. The right hand on the heart of the young man contributed to this reading: it alludes to the wound inflicted by the gaze of the loved one according to a Petrarchian topos. The eyes of the subject seek those of the spectator as they do in two other Boltraffio works, the so-called Portraits of a Boy as Saint Sebastian, now at the Pŭskin Museum in Moscow (circa 1496) and the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego (circa 1500-1501).

These depict the saint as unusually adolescent, following a rarely used model born in Milan within the circle of Leonardo in the last decade of the 15th century by Boltraffio himself and Marco d’Oggiono. At the same time, the subject of a young person with an arrow, in some cases without a halo, has been considered as a sensual or sentimental image with Neoplatonic undertones, ​​where the dart is that of love previously described by Petrarca in his poetry and later found in the verses of Casio too. Due to their similarity with the Allegory, the two Boys have also been considered to be commissioned by the same client – sometimes as his portrait – although without any certainty. Another painting by Boltraffio that until recently played a role in the common interpretation of the Allegory is The Young Man with a Skull, now at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, which acquired it from the Archiginnasio of Bologna. In reality, this picture was transformed into a portrait of Casio by addition of a laurel wreath on the hat and verses taken from Clementina, celebrating his investiture as a poet laureate and golden knight by Pope Clement VII; these words cover a pre-existing text on the cartouche. 

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, “Allegory of Girolamo Casio” (back of the painting). Duke of Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House.

The meaning of the Allegory at Chatsworth would continue to be mysterious and suggest complex interpretations until a recently discovered document emerged (a testimony found by Luca Boschetto, who very generously allowed me to publish it here): it has been decisive in reconstructing the provenance of the painting and to make safe speculations about its purpose. The four-volume manuscript Delle casate et famiglie fiorentine, now at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, is an example of a Florentine “prioristi a famiglie” from the last decade of the 16th century and the first of the 17th century. It was written by Giuliano Ricci (1543-1606), grandson of Niccolò Machiavelli and was dedicated to the Medici. It is a detailed history of the families of Florence, divided into the four city districts. In the part concerning the Medici, in a page dealing with Popes Leo X and Clement VII (vol. IV, f. 189v), Ricci inserted a note in which The Allegory is mentioned along with a now lost lid for the picture with the Medici coat of arms:

Non mi pare fuor di proposito il fare menzione di un quadro che di donna bellissima ritratta al naturale di mano di raffaello da urbino pittore eccellentissimo si ritruova hoggi nel 1602 in casa di successori di m. piero turini da Pescia uno d[e’] quali turini fu cameriere di papa leone et si vede che il quadro fu fatto ad instantia di d[e]c[t]o papa leone, o, di altri di quelli tempi q[uest]a figura ha li capelli sparsi fatti con tanta diligentia et accuratezza che si scambiano da veri et si conteriano a uno a uno e da un curioso per vedere se vi erano posti veri, o, se pure erano finti furono co[n] ferro tentati e scortecciati 12 de e a foggia di una spera da una parte nel rovescio e un teschio di morto ritratto da[l] naturale co[n] q[uest]e parole insigne sum hieronimi casii dall’altra parte nell’assicella che la cuopre vi e l’arme de medici antica con un motto. Ricordasi assai chi ben serve e tace.

This passage confirms that in 1602 the painting – here mentioned as the depiction of a beautiful woman – belonged to the descendants of Piero Turini, son of Giulio and grandson of Andrea (1473-1550), who had been an eminent figure of the nobility of Pescia and of the Medicis circle, doctor of Pope Clement VII, Caterina de Medici, the king of France Francis I, and Pope Paul III. Baldassarre (1486-1543), one of Andrea’s brothers, was administrator of the duchy of Urbino for Lorenzo de Medici and, from 1519, a figure close to Pope Leo X and later to Pope Paul III. His tight relations with the Tuscan and Roman artistic communities of the time are well known: he was a friend of Raphael, managing his finances and executing his will; he followed the realization of Popes Leo X and Clement VII’s funeral monuments in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva by Giuliano da Sangallo the Younger and Baccio Bandinelli; he commissioned Giulio Romano to design his villa in Rome (later called Lante) on the Gianicolo with frescoes mostly by Polidoro da Caravaggio; he had the family palace in Pescia renovated between 1534 and 1542, entrusting Baccio d’Agnolo and his son Giuliano to design the chapel in the church that was to house his own tomb and that of his older namesake relative, with sculptures by Raffaello da Montelupo and Pierino da Vinci (Leonardo’s nephew); he commissioned Raphael to realize the unfinished Madonna of the Canopy for the Santo Spirito church in Florence.

In addition, Giorgio Vasari and Raffaello Borghini also placed the Boltraffio Allegory in the Turini house in Pescia, attributing it to Leonardo and identifying the subject as a young man this time. Vasari says:

[Leonardo] Fece in questo tempo per M. Baldassarre Turini da Pescia che era datario di Leone: un quadretto di N. Donna con il figliuolo in braccio con infinita diligentia e arte. Ma, o sia per colpa di chi lo ingessò, o pur per quelle sue tante, e capricciose misture delle mestiche e de colori, è hoggi molto guasto. Et in un altro quadretto ritrasse un fanciulletto, che è bello a guardare a maraviglia, che oggi sono tutti e due in Pescia appresso a messer Giulio Turini.

As to Borghini:

[Leonardo] “Dipinse in un quadretto una Nostradonna col figliuolo in collo, & in un altro quadretto ritrasse un fanciullo che è bello a maraviglia, i quali quadri non da molto tempo erano in casa i Turini di Pescia, e peraventura ancora vi sono.

Neither of them mentions the back with the skull and the inscription with the name of Casio, nor the important lid with the Medici coat of arms. Perhaps they did not see the work in real life, or they just saw its front, without lid. The work was not specifically attributed to Leonardo in Ricci’s Delle casate et famiglie fiorentine; the scholar, who studied with Borghini and despised Vasari, attributed it to Raphael. 

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Portrait of a Youth Holding an Arrow. Timken Museum, San Diego, CA, US.

The rest of the story of Boltraffio’s Allegory of Girolamo Casio is well known. On January 30, 1636 the picture arrived in London, part of a huge gift of paintings long promised to King Charles I and Queen Henrietta by Francesco Barberini, a powerful cardinal and nephew of Pope Urban VIII. This was a political tribute, aimed at turning England in favor of Catholicism. The piece, believed to be a portrait of a woman and now without its lid, was particularly appreciated by the English royals and by Inigo Jones, architect of the English crown. The latter, writes the papal agent Gregorio Panzani to Barberini, “[…] believes that this painting by [Leonardo] is the portrait of a certain Ginevra Benzi from Venice, given the painted letters on her chest; he claims, boastfully, so to show off his vain knowledge of painting.”

The painting entered the Duke of Devonshire’s collection in 1761, first exhibited in his London Piccadilly residence, still attributed to Leonardo and believed to depict the Duke of Braganza. Later, Johan David Passavant reported it at Devonshire House, firstly mentioning Boltraffio as the real author. Even later, Waagen came across the Allegory at Chatsworth and speculated that it was a portrait of Boltraffio painted by Leonardo. The initials might have originally been GB instead of CB.

[Here is our interview with Peregrine Cavendish, the current Duke of Devonshire. Ed.]

However, Giuliano Ricci was already aware that the painting was not initially commissioned by the Turinis but by someone from the Medici family. The lack of a cardinal’s hat on the lost lid with “the ancient Medici coat of arms” he described leads to exclude Giovanni de ‘Medici (1475-1521), the future Pope Leo X, as a possible patron in favor of his brother Giuliano (1479-1516), Duke of Nemours from 1515. What is certain is that the Allegory of Girolamo Casio was closely linked to the tormenting experiences of the Medici during the Florentine republic, and to the role in the Medici cause claimed by Casio himself, whose loyalty was rewarded with offices and honors from Leo X, Giuliano and Clement VII (Giulio de Medici).

The work belongs to the stylistic phase of Boltraffio’s Louvre altarpiece, which was commissioned by Casio in 1500 for the family chapel in Santa Maria della Misericordia in Bologna. At this time, the artist must have also been in Venice with Leonardo when the lagoon city was defeated by the Turks in 1499; there he learned about the works of Giovanni Bellini and crossed paths with Giorgione. He must also have had some knowledge of Lorenzo Costa and Francesco Francia’s early classicism. In October 1502 he was again in Milan and was commissioned to paint the Santa Barbara, now at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, initially intended for the church of Santa Maria near San Satiro.

Marin Sanudo’s diary confirms that, between 1497 and 1504, Giuliano de Medici resided mainly in Bologna, the first city to which the sons of Lorenzo the Magnificent fleeing Florence had turned. From the autobiography inserted by Casio in Clementina (1523) we learn that in 1501 the poet hosted the future Duke of Nemours in his house, then committed to involving Cesare Borgia in the restoration of the Medici in Florence. Their friendship lasted longer. In August 1510 “the magnificent Iuliano”, who was then living at the court of Francesco Maria Della Rovere, sent Federico Gonzaga some taffeta to Urbino on behalf of Casio, whom at that moment was involved in the realization of a portrait of the Marquis of Mantua, commissioned to Francesco Francia by Isabella d’Este. In 1514 Giuliano repaid Casio’s loyalty by allowing him to add the Medici surname to his own, as a verse from Clementina confirms. In the Epitaph, another verse and a sonnet celebrate the ruler after his death in 1516.

Giuliano was a poet and bibliophile; among other things, he owned the important Hamilton manuscript of Boccaccio’s Decameron, now at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. He lived jumping around different courts during the Medici exile from Florence, and is recently recognized as a crucial political figure at the time. He was included as one of the protagonists of the Cortegiano by Baldassarre Castiglione and the Prose della vulgar lingua by Pietro Bembo, whom he met in Venice. When Pope Leo X planned to create a dynastic state for him, it is possible that Niccolò Machiavelli, with whom Giuliano was on excellent terms, wanted to dedicate his masterpiece Il Principe to him. At the same time, in Rome, he had Leonardo at his service and was immortalized by Raphael and workshop in the Portrait, now at the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

All these elements considered, Giuliano seems a good candidate for the recipient of Casio’s elaborate gift at the beginning of the 16th century. The Medici ruler must have been able to appreciate Boltraffio, whom he had probably met in Leonardo’s circle in Milan, where he lived between 1495 and 1498 at the court of Ludovico il Moro in the building that once belonged to his family’s bank. Furthermore, the painter’s fame could have reached him from Mantua, where Boltraffio was sent in 1498 by Isabella of Aragon to copy a portrait of her relative Ferrante, belonging to the Gonzaga family, or from Venice, where it is believed he went in 1499 with Leonardo and Luca Pacioli.

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Portrait of a Young Man. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, IT.

Supposedly a gift of Casio to Giuliano, the Allegory at Chatsworth, now placed in a 17th century frame of semi-precious stones, was the bearer of a precise message. Removing the lid with the Medici coat of arms and the phrase “Remember whoever serves you well and is silent”, the enigmatic adolescent appeared with the initials “CB” on the collar, interpreted as standing for “Casius Bononiensis” [Casio of Bologna] by Wilhelm Suida. The skull would appear when turning the painting. The inscription “Insigne sum Hieronyms Casii” (“I am the emblem of Girolamo Casio”) made it clear what the recipient of the gift should have remembered: the giver’s discretion and loyalty.

The lost lid described by Giuliano Ricci calls into question the meanings attributed to the work so far. The Allegory is a memento mori, contrasting an image of youthful attractiveness with one of death, advancing a declaration of fidelity and blind gratitude. We need not see the androgynous boy on the front as an idealized image of the thirty-six year old poet, whose true features are greatly more apparent in the altarpiece now at the Louvre. Rather, the subject simply follows a Leonardesque formula of adolescent beauty, also used by Boltraffio elsewhere in the Boy as Saint Sebastian in Moscow and San Diego, without implying that the client was the same and that these works transfigure the image of a real person. A similar two-sided portrait – the Andrea Previtali at the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan, datable approximately between 1502 and 1506 – evokes a similar vanitas meaning: the front is a true portrait of a young man and the back depicts a skull with a paper note saying “HIC DECOR H [A] EC FORM MANET H [A] EC LEX OMNIBUS UNA” Moreover, as Elena Rama points out, the theme of vanitas is in line with what would become a specialty of Casio’s poetry: epitaphs. As he candidly confesses in his Vite dei Santi, it was Pope Leo X who encouraged him to practice this genre, given the too ruthless competition in the field of love poetry. 

A merchant and jeweler among other things, Casio remains a figure of extreme interest for art historians: as a client of artists such as Fra Bartolomeo, Giuliano Bugiardini, Ludovico Mazzolino, Giacomo Francia, and Boltraffio; as a collector of antiques (when he died, his collection was purchased by Primaticcio for the King of France); as a link between artists and clients in the early 16th century courts in the Po Valley, whose taste he was able to change. Moreover, his verses in La Cronica, which he dedicated to numerous artists (Francesco Francia in particular), shed light on art patronage and artworks that would otherwise remain unknown.

Less investigated is Casio’s political career: he was linked to the Bentivoglio and Gonzagas and was consultant for purchases and commissions for Isabella d’Este, as well as his involvement with the Medici as one of their informal diplomats. In his Clementina, after recalling the hospitality offered to Giuliano de Medici, he lists his political merits: the release of the Bolognese ambassadors Angelo Ranucci and Giovanni Marsili, made prisoners by Vitellozzo Vitelli in 1501 during the siege of Imola; as a envoy from Bologna at the court of Cesare Borgia, his involvement in the Bolognese and Vatican expedition to restore the Medici in Florence; the arranged marriage without dowry between Ermes Bentivoglio and Giacoma Orsini (daughter of Giacomo captain of Valentino), a strategic union in the relations between Bologna and the Borgia celebrated in 1504; addressing Leo X, a Medici, his blind loyalty to the family in their dark times and gifts to him – a hat with an agate pendant (“stone of Jupiter who acquires benevolence”) depicting the Holy Spirit, which predicted Giulio’s ascent to the papal throne.

Leo X surrounded himself with poets and writers of very unequal talent. The honors with which he rewarded Casio appear disproportionate to his poetic skills, a sign that the Pope’s political debts and gratitude towards the poet must have been considerable. In 1513, Leo X included him in the Forty of the Regiment of Bologna, a position which was soon taken away due to the opposition of the Senate to give such a recognition to a man of relatively humble origins. He was nonetheless knighted later by Pope Clement VII and granted the Medici surname by Giuliano. His proclamation as a graduate poet was the culmination of Casio’s political career, but soon became an easy excuse for mockery by his detractors such as Aretino and Paolo Giovio.

The target of Francesco Berni in the Dialogue against the poets (1526), Casio is described as the incarnation of the vain poet, flattering and perpetually in search of protection and recognition. Indeed, in his Clementina, he dedicates various compositions to the sons of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and some sonnets speak of precious gifts (not paintings) to Leo X – the hat pendant mentioned earlier, a jasper plate with the head of the Baptist, a wooden sculpture depicting a knight (alluding to the granting of a knighthood) – and a ring given to Clement VII. In the verses addressed to Leo X, the poet repeatedly hopes for signs of gratitude for his loyalty, and in his Gonzaga, a sonnet titled Sonetto ai lettori cements this attitude:

Se dato è dal destin, Sorte o Natura, 
Servir, o dominar per fin a morte,
Quel laudo, che’l servir mi diede in Sorte, 
Io servo e al ben servir mai sempre ho cura 
Senza esso mancaria la mia natura
Qual senza cibo ogni Animal ben forte, 
Però a quei lochi vado, e a quelle porte 
Ove penso gradir mia fede pura.
Non avendo fin qui del sparso seme
Altro che ingratitudine raccolto
Mancar al mio servir dovria la speme.
Non manca, no, anci più intento, e sciolto 
Di voglia servo (e sol c’habbia mi preme) 
Per Morte dal servir esser disciolto.

At the beginning of the 16th century, a similar attitude must have been behind the gift of the Boltraffio painting. Ironically, the memory of Casio’s homage to a Medici, perhaps Giuliano, vanished after a short time. Soon the piece, whose meaning nobody understood anymore, passed to Andrea or Baldassarre Turini, leading members of the Medici circle. Famous in the Po Valley courts at the turn of the 15th century and lauded as an exceptional portraitist by Marcello Filosseno, Lancino Curzio and by Casio himself, Boltraffio was not famous in Tuscany. Vasari only mentions him as Leonardo’s pupil in the Vite, he remembers no works by him in the Torrentiniana, and only his Casio altarpiece in the Giuntina. Boltraffio’s name was forgotten by the end of the 16th century. In the Turini house, the Allegory was attributed to Leonardo or Raphael, perhaps to increase its value. Without Giuliano Ricci and his memory of the painting’s lid, we would not be able to get a prosaic sense of such a fascinating work, linking it to the events of the Medici during their exile from Florence and to the “good service” of Girolamo Casio.

January 26, 2023