Cavaliere di San Giovanni (c.1523-1524)

Rosso Fiorentino (1495-1540)

Cavaliere di San Giovanni (A Knight of Saint John)
Oil on poplar, 96.8 x 76.2 cm
National GalleryLondon

The unknown man in this half-length portrait proudly displays an eight-pointed silver cross suspended from a black cord round his neck, which identifies him as a Knight of the Order of Saint John. His left hand clasps a sword. The pose points to the twin aims of the Order: religious and military strength. The painting is over life size, making the panel larger than most of Rosso’s other portraits. The portrait may have been made especially tall to show off the sword hilt.

The Knights of Saint John was a religious order formed in the eleventh century to look after injured crusaders. In 1309 it established itself on the island of Rhodes, which it ruled for 200 years. The Order was made up of men from all the major European Catholic countries, many from noble families. It developed a military function in response to Ottoman attempts to capture the island. Having been expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks, the Order arrived in Rome in 1523 then subsequently moved to Malta; it is with that island that the Order is especially associated. Rosso moved to Rome in late 1523 and it seems plausible that it was here that he met the knight whose likeness he recorded. The dress worn by the knight is not ceremonial, but more sombre ‘outdoor’ clothing. Franciabigio also depicted a member of the Order in his Portrait of a Knight of Rhodes, in which he includes the large badge on the left chest which formed part of the ceremonial clothing.

Traditionally attributed to Rosso, the picture has also been given to Polidoro da Caravaggio. Conservation work has revealed areas of paint handling that support the attribution to Rosso, notably the broad parallel strokes in varying shades of red brushed in different directions on the underside of the hat, creating a patchwork effect. A type of jabbing hatching particularly seen in Rosso’s work is abundantly apparent in the shirt, and a further type of hatched stroke appears in the lighter areas of the face. Rosso more than any of his Florentine contemporaries allowed his brushstrokes to remain visible in his paintings rather than blending them together. The distinctive spiky fingers are characteristic of Rosso and the decorative outline of the large soft vermilion hat, which casts a shadow on the sitter’s forehead and side of his face, is typical of his bizarre sense of invention.

The balance of colour in the painting has altered considerably over time, so that the vermilion hat is much brighter than it would have been originally and the dress is much darker. The lower two-thirds of the painting have suffered particularly badly, especially the silver-black cloak. The patterns of loss and the defects and cracking caused by the imperfect drying of the paint can be found in other works by Rosso, and help to support the attribution of the painting to him. Technical analysis has revealed that the knight’s right hand was originally painted at waist level, tucked into his scabbard harness. The original painting of the beard and ear are entirely lost, upsetting the effect of the powerful head, which now seems to sink into the chest. The figure’s massive bulk suggests that Rosso had been impressed and influenced by the work of Michelangelo and Sebastiano in Rome. The fact that the portrait is painted on poplar, a wood particularly favoured for panel paintings in Italy, implies that it was probably made before Rosso’s departure for France in 1530. (NG)