Bust Portrait of a Young Man with an Inscription

oil painting of bearded man in slight profile, with inscription at bottom

Giovanni Battista Moroni
Bust Portrait of a Young Man with an Inscription, ca. 1560
Oil on canvas
18 5/8 x 15 5/8 in. (47.2 x 39.8 cm)
The National Gallery, London; Layard Bequest, 1916 (NG 3129)
Inscriptions: DVM SPIRITVS / HOS REGET ARTVS [As long as breath animates these limbs], from Virgil’s Aeneid IV, 336; below, in gold-colored ink in a different script, ANNOR XXX [of thirty years].
© The National Gallery, London

The inscription from Virgil’s Aeneid quotes Aeneas professing his commitment to Dido, queen of Carthage, as he is forced to abandon her. This may connote amorous devotion, though the passage appears on a number of sixteenth-century portrait medals as a statement of religious fidelity. Its significance here is unknown. The painting of the parapet and inscription on top of the figure was an unusual compositional change in Moroni’s portraiture. He achieves a sense of immediacy through the animated expression of the raised eyebrow and cocked head and by turning the body nearly perpendicular to the picture plane. These effects did not always appeal to later tastes: in the nineteenth century, the body was overpainted to make it face more frontally (this has since been removed) and a canvas strip added above the head to make Moroni’s close crop less dramatic (this remains today).
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