Jacopo Boncompagni

oil painting of man, from waist up, in black and gold armor with helmet on table

Scipione Pulzone (1540/42–98)
Jacopo Boncompagni, 1574
48 x 39 1/8 inches
Oil on canvas
Private Collection
Courtesy Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd.

In the portrait, Pulzone achieves lifelike qualities through painstakingly rendered details. Traces of brushwork are suppressed in order to gain a highly finished surface that adds to the portrait’s sense of refinement. Boncompagni’s dazzling armor displays techniques of embossing, damascening, bluing, and gilding. Pulzone’s depiction of the breeches — woven with gold and silver threads — shows an equal degree of precision. The light bouncing off the breastplate lends tactile effect to the polished surface of the metal. Pulzone’s masterful depiction of the play of light in the smallest details, as on the fringe of the curtain, enhances the illusionism. On closer examination, one finds that the sitter is in fact depicted on a fictive canvas whose edge is partially covered by the blue drape. With this pictorial device, Pulzone encourages the viewer to compare his skills to those of the ancient painter Parrhasius, who deceived his rival Zeuxis with a painting of a curtain.

The natural son of Pope Gregory XIII, Boncompagni moved to Rome in 1572 when his father was elected. In the same year he became Governor of Castel Sant’Angelo and head of the papal army. As a newcomer to Roman noble society, he would have felt the need to actively propagate his image, and a portrayal in armor would serve this purpose. Despite its growing obsolescence on the fields of battle, armor continued to be seen as a symbol of masculinity, military valor, wealth, social status, and antique lineage. Pulzone’s portrayal of Boncompagni in ostentatious armor reflects the sitter’s important positions. The figure of Saint Michael on the breastplate refers not only to Castel Sant’Angelo but also to Boncompagni’s role as the protector of the Church. Militant spirit is represented in the prominent display of the figure of Mars on the helmet and the armored glove placed on the table. Lining the golden bands that twine the breastplate and shoulder and arm defenses are various trophies that represent military feats. More specific than the spoils are the depictions of captive Turks along the center band of the breastplate and the base of the helmet, which commemorate the recent victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In addition to the martial motifs, symbols of wealth and prosperity — such as cornucopias and grotesque figures carrying jars of fruit — convey Boncompagni’s eminent status.

Photo: Michael Bodycomb
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