An Image of the Perfect Courtier

This portrait by Renaissance master Raphael was painted in Rome probably in the winter of 1514–15. It is a likeness of the soldier, courtier and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), famous for his authorship of a seminal text, the Libro del cortegiano (Book of the Courtier), which was first published in Venice in 1528 and went on to become a best seller in many European languages.

Castiglione sat for this portrait shortly before he left Rome for his home in Mantua in 1516. While there, he married Ippolita Torrelli (1499-1520) and had a son by her. When he returned to Rome in 1519, he left the portrait with her as a remembrance of him. He composed a Latin epigram to go with the portrait, in which he imagined how it would comfort his wife and son in his absence. He used a popular topos of the period, according to which the portrait was imagined to almost breath or speak. Despite the conventionality of the device, Castiglione seems to have had genuine admiration for the communicative power of Raphael’s masterful portrait.

Raffaello Sanzio, Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15). Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, INV 611. Wikicommons.