Vittore Ghislandi called Fra Galgario - inv. 1547
This portrait is also known as Knight with a Cocked Hat after the large black felt hat edged with silver braid low on the sitter’s brow.
Our eye hesitates, not knowing whether to pause on the man’s pallid face with its large fleshy mouth, or on his sumptuous, richly embroidered garments, painted in tones of black, grey and silver. His short looking wig is tied in a pony-tail by a ribbon, fastened at the front like a tie: this was originally a military style, called ‘tye-wig’, popular among English officers from 1713, though here it is simply a fashionable touch.
Equally decorative is the silvered waistcoat, which the sitter appears to indicate as he places his hand on his decoration, a lilied cross bearing the initials I.H.S.V. (“In Hoc Signo Vinces” [by this sign thou shalt conquer]). This is the emblem of a knightly order of ancient Byzantine origin, the Constantinian order of Saint George, brought back to fashion between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century by the duke of Parma and Piacenza, Francesco Farnese.
The painting has always been considered one of Vittore Ghislandi’s masterpieces, due to the extraordinary psychological rendering of the character. In the past it has also been interpreted in social terms as a criticism of the decadence of certain aristocracy.
The undeniable attraction of this unknown knight lies in the ambiguity of the image that both attracts and repels, but also and above all, in the pictorial quality of the painting, datable to about 1740.
The colour is thick because the painter, now elderly, had abandoned his brush in favour of spreading the pigments directly with his fingers, perhaps due to arthritis in his hands. The result is a powdery monochrome with three different tones of red standing out: the lips, the cross and the ribbon on the walking stick.