Only a few months ago, this magnificent portrait of Raphael was still, in the Salon Carré, near the famous Mona Lisa of Vinci, recently been carried away from the admiration of the world by a criminal hand. Side by side, the two paintings radiated an incomparable splendor in this illustrious room, in this Saint of the Saints of Art, which nevertheless contains only masterpieces. At the place vacated by Mona Lisa – and that she will no longer be able to take it back – Balthazar Castiglione throne today, and her delicate smile as a diplomat succeeds to the troubling enigma of the eyes and lips of the Mona Lisa.
To contemplate the impeccable perfection of this portrait, we can guess that Raphael put all his soul into executing it. Castiglione was, in fact, his most dear friend and most reliable adviser. It was to him that the great artist wrote: “I will tell you that to paint a feminine beauty I need to have you with me to choose the most beautiful.”
Castiglione deserved this honor. Nature had adorned him with the most brilliant gifts. His exterior was seductive, his face pleasant, his manners affable and courteous. He loved the arts with passion, understood and encouraged them. Of remarkable knowledge and intelligence, at once a soldier and a scholar, he wielded the sword like a Sforza and the pen like Machiavelli. Just as the latter wrote the Prince’s Book, Castiglione left to the world this immortal monument of the spirit of the Renaissance: the Book of the Courtier. From the courtier he was himself the accomplished type, without baseness as without effort, by the suppleness of his mind and the sincerity of his attachment to his princes. He first waged war in the army of the Duke of Urbino and then served him as a diplomat. Then he went successively to the service of Pope Clement VII and of the Emperor Charles V. Leo X. made him a cardinal. Charles V gave him the title of Bishop of Avila. Soldier, literary, diplomat, bishop, cardinal, Castiglione, with his multiple qualities, realizes the most complete and brilliant personification of the great cultivated lord of the Italian Renaissance.
He was always very attached to Raphael, whom he had known very young, and whose genius he had guessed. Very much in favor with the princes and the papal court, he helped to facilitate his beginnings. It was due to his influence that the young painter received his first orders. Raphael was not ungrateful. Becoming rich and reaching the height of glory, he never ceases to see a benefactor in this patrician who poses only as a friend. He knows, moreover, what science, what a sure taste, what height of mind is concealed under the elegant exterior of the great lord. When he is embarrassed at any point of history or if he hesitates in the composition of a group or ensemble, he appeals to the judgment of Balthazar Castiglione. When Julius II entrusted Raphael with the decoration of his apartments in the Vatican, the rude pontiff decreed the destruction of the previously painted frescoes, some of which were signed by the great names of Perugino and Sodoma. Desolated from this profanation, Raphael opened himself to Castiglione, who encouraged him to resist to the designs of the pope. With this support, the painter presented himself before Julius II, wiped his anger, but succeeded in saving the threatened works. Raphael, in charge of painting allegorical figures in the Chamber of Signature, was little cultivated in spite of his powers of assimilation. He found a guide always ready, a council always authorized by Balthazar Castiglione, and orderly harmony, the unity of conception in the infinite variety of motifs, indicate the important documentary contribution that Castiglione provided to the painter.
Such is portrayed in history, as we see in the portrait of the Louvre. The sharp and penetrating eyes speak of intelligence, the thin lips of finesse; Raphael, whose friendship led the brush, was able to embellish the character of an aristocratic distinction. The whole picture is in a gray, attenuated tone, unusual for painters of that period, and which will be found only a century later in another artist of genius, Velazquez. Everything harmonizes admirably in this painting, the garment, the face, the bottom itself, as if the whole bathed in a uniform light, very soft and sifted by a screen.
This manner, of which Raphael himself used very rarely, demonstrates the prodigious flexibility of his art, which was adapted to all genres and was transformed completely according to the subject to be treated, in turn amiable or grandiose, full of sweetness or power, and always equal by genius.
This work is one of the last of Raphael. He painted it in 1517, three years before his death.
After the death of Castiglione, the picture passed to the Duke of Mantua, from which Charles I of England bought it. It is later found in the collection of a Dutch amateur, Van Asselin, from where Rembrandt and Rubens copied it. At the time when Mazarin acquired it, this portrait was estimated at 3,000 francs. At the death of the cardinal-minister, he entered, thanks to Louis XIV, into the national domain. Originally painted on wood, it was transported on canvas.
Height: 0.67 – Width: 0.62 – Half-length figure, natural size.
Translated from Louvre Museum, by Armand Dayot