The period between 1530 and 1533 was crucial for the formulation of the image of Charles V. The image that ultimately proved most influential was invented by Jacob Seisenegger who painted five full-length portraits of Charles V between 1530 and 1532, creating a totally innovative typology for the depiction of the Emperor but one that had numerous precedents in German art (Cranach, Strigel, Amberger) and to a lesser extent in Italy (Carpaccio, Moretto). Seisenegger first painted Charles full-length during the Diet of Augsburg in the summer of 1530 on the request of Charles himself (Patrimonio Nacional, Mallorca, Palacio de la Almudaina). In 1531, and this time on the request of Charles’ brother Ferdinand, Seisenegger painted two portraits of the Emperor in Prague and a further one in Ratisbon in 1532 (Ashby Castle, Lord Northampton), the same year that he executed in Bologna the portrait now in Vienna.
Titian painted Charles V for the first time in 1530. This work is now lost and we can only estimate its appearance from a woodcut by Brito and a copy by Rubens (Yorkshire, Nidd Hall, Lord Mountgarret). In both images Charles wears armour and holds a sword, but the formats are notably different: he is depicted bust-length in the woodcut and three-quarters in the copy by Rubens. The latter seems more likely to correctly reflect the lost original due to the accurate nature of Rubens’ copies (while the same cannot be said of prints based on paintings by Titian), and because the three-quarter format was used by Titian in the previous decade for portraits of rulers, for example that of Federico Gonzaga at whose request he painted the Emperor for the first time. It seems evident that Titian’s portrait did not particularly please the Emperor. Titian and Charles met again in Bologna in 1533, the date of the Prado portrait, whose similarity to Seisenegger’s is evident. However, the relationship between the two works is more complex. While most experts consider Seisenegger’s work to be the earlier of the two (it is dated 1532, while Titian met Charles in January 1533), the opposite opinion has recently found more supporters, largely due to the pentimento in the pose of the dog visible in the x-ray of Titian’s portrait. This pentimento is not sufficient to invert the chronological sequence established in the documentation. Furthermore there is clear proof that the dog, whose presence in portraits of rulers enjoyed a long tradition at the Burgundian court, was painted by Seisenegger from life as in a letter of 1535 written by the artist to Ferdinand of Austria he states that it was an English breed and that he made an effort to show that it was a female, a detail not evident in Titian’s painting. Despite all of this, the most solid evidence in favour of Seisenegger’s painting being the first is, on the one hand, the fact that he had been painting Charles V in full-length since 1530 in works that include elements to be seen in the 1532 portrait. Secondly, a portrait is never copied in order to make it worse, and there is no doubt (regardless of who painted this image first) that Titian’s is superior to Seisenegger’s, and not just for its aesthetic merits. Despite their similarities, the two portraits present very different images of the Emperor. Seisenegger’s shows a robust individual of medium height who conforms to contemporary descriptions. He is less attractive than the elegant figure painted by Titian, who subtly but crucially modified the Emperor’s appearance, giving him a more slender body, increasing the surface area of the fur-lined cloak in comparison to the doublet, making his expression more lively by lifting his eyelids (which in Seisenegger’s image cover half of his eyes), and giving him a straight and implausibly perfect and classical nose. In order to emphasise the figure’s presence Titian also modified its relationship to the space around it. His skill in this respect is quite clear as although his canvas is smaller than Seisenegger’s it produces a greater sense of breadth and depth, largely through the use of a lower horizon. In Seisenegger’s portrait the floor, with its bold geometrical pattern, already used in the first portrait executed in Augsburg in 1530, meets the wall at a higher point than in Titian’s composition, thus limiting the depth of the room. The lack of space is emphasised by the curtain (also to be seen in the Ratisbon portrait of 1532 but of a different type), which acts as a screen between the wall and the Emperor. Titian, in contrast, locates Charles in the immediate foreground and selects a low viewpoint that expands the room, while by locating the curtain to one side he clarifies the Emperor’s figure, freeing up the space between his legs. Titian accompanied these modifications with a highly subtle and graduated use of colour, avoiding Seisenegger’s use of cool tones, creating an all-enveloping atmosphere and further contributing to the construction of the pictorial space.
Why would Titian have copied Seisenegger’s portrait? We should bear in mind that in the 16th century the practice of copying works by others did not have negative connotations and that Titian made various copies over the course of his career. Nor is it surprising that, knowing how Seisenegger’s portraits had enjoyed the placet of the Emperor since 1530 (something he himself had not secured), a painter as competitive as Titian would wish to demonstrate his superiority in the same field. In this sense his painting is not so much a copy as an authentic interpretation. Whatever the case, his superiority was recognised by the Emperor, who rewarded him with 500 ducats and shortly after ennobled him and granted him the sole right to portray him, emulating Alexander with Apelles.
Leaving aside the problem of the chronology of these two works, Charles is shown wearing the same clothes in both images: a robon or half-length silver cloak with a fur lining, a brown doublet with silver brocade embroidery, breeches, a black hat and white shoes, as he was dressed on 1 November 1532 during a visit to Bassano. This combination of courtly elements (the silver cape) and military ones (the brown doublet and in particular the breeches habitually worn by landsknechts) projected an image that combined refinement and power but also proclaimed his dominion over Italy (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: El retrato del Renacimiento, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2008, pp. 505-506).
• Charles V (1500-1558)