El Greco (1541–1614)
Vincenzo Anastagi, ca. 1575
Oil on canvas
74 x 49 7/8 inches
The Frick Collection; Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Vincenzo Anastagi was born to a noble family in Perugia, in 1531, and became a Knight of Malta on February 13, 1563. He was best known for his contribution to the victory against the Ottoman Turks during the Siege of Malta in 1565. As a middle-ranking nobleman, Anastagi would not have seemed a likely patron for El Greco, but he was connected to a very eminent personage: Jacopo Boncompagni, who named him the sergeant major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in 1575, the event that probably occasioned the portrait commission.
For his portrayal of Anastagi, El Greco looked to examples of military portraits, the most recent, successful likeness of this type in Rome being Scipione Pulzone’s portrait of Boncompagni in opulent armor.
During the Renaissance, the representation of reflective armor signified a painter’s virtuosity. El Greco knew that an artful rendering would draw much praise. Here, he goes beyond a faithful description of the symbolic object, drastically abbreviating the details of Anastagi’s cuirass. A single blaze of light reflects off the metal of the breastplate, highlighting the painter’s technical proficiency. The oddly shaped curtain serves as an effective contrasting backdrop.
With his free brushwork, El Greco achieves a sense of verisimilitude distinct from that of Pulzone’s meticulously executed portrait, emphasizing Anastagi’s military career and personal traits over his status. The sunburnt face, threads of gray hair, self-confident gesture, and muscular calves testify to his experience as an infantry officer and his brilliance on the battlefield rather than idealize his features. The austere room without the conventional trappings further accentuates this aspect.
When acquired by Henry Clay Frick in 1913, the painting had a pedestal on the left side, which bore an inscription, and a Maltese Cross on the breastplate. These were additions made by another hand in the late sixteenth century, and therefore were painted over during treatment in 1959.