When Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased this self-portrait by the Florentine artist Baccio Bandinelli from the London dealer Colnaghi & Co. in 1899, she did so in the belief that it was a portrait of Michelangelo by Sebastiano del Piombo.
The irony is spectacular.
Bandinelli was Michelangelo’s great rival. He was also one of the most loathed figures of the High Renaissance. “No-one could endure him,” according to Giorgio Vasari, who wrote Bandinelli’s biography in parallel with Michelangelo’s. “His abusive language lost him all goodwill and obscured his talent, so that men viewed his works askance and never liked them.”
In the course of his celebrated autobiography, Benvenuto Cellini, who competed directly with Bandinelli and was basically in Michelangelo’s camp, described his rival as a liar, a brute, and a beast. His face, he added for good measure, was “hideous beyond measure.”
A little harsh, perhaps; but going by the evidence presented by Bandinelli himself, Cellini may have had a point. With his forked beard, his long, flaring nose, his cropped hair, and his glowering eyes, Bandinelli no doubt frightened a few children in his time.
But what’s equally clear — though Cellini vociferously denied it — is that he was an extraordinarily accomplished artist.
Bandinelli had made his career serving the Medici family in a period that saw them ousted from Florence, the seat of their power, and then returned, to the chagrin of Florentine republicans.
Unlike Michelangelo, he had not worked for the interim government, and so his status as the city’s official sculptor was well entrenched by the time of this painting (around 1545-50). Bandinelli shows himself in glossy black garb, with, around his neck, a heavy gold chain with a shell — the emblem of the Imperial Order of Santiago, bestowed on him by the Emperor Charles V.
More than his alleged habit of lying, his hubris, or his hated appearance, the source of the widespread loathing directed at Bandinelli was in fact the red-chalking drawing to which he points in the picture with such evident pride.
The drawing is a study for the sculptural commission that secured Bandinelli’s reputation — his reputation, that is, as a schmuck. Or, as Shakespeare might have put it, “a rascal; an eater of broken meats . . . [a] glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue.”
The commission was to adorn the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio (the great town hall of Florence). Challenging Michelangelo’s “David,” it was to be a dynamic sculpture showing the Greek hero Hercules vanquishing the fire-eating monster Cacus.
Cellini, for one, didn’t like the result: He attacked its “poverty of art,” comparing Hercules’ shoulders to “the two pommels of an ass’s pack saddle” and the muscles of his body to “a big sack full of melons set upright against a wall.” He wasn’t alone. When the sculpture was carried into the square to be erected, people threw stones at it.
The problem, of course, was political more than aesthetic. The Medici intended the sculpture to symbolize their triumphant return to power. The people of Florence knew it, and deeply resented it.
Even worse, as far as Vasari and Cellini were concerned, the commission was supposed to be Michelangelo’s. But his collaboration with Florence’s interim republican government meant that he had fallen from favor, which is why Bandinelli, who had long been angling for it, got the job instead.
I read this painting, then, less as a self-portrait than as a taunt — a real, Renaissance-style nose-rubbing — aimed at Michelangelo.
The picture hangs in the Gardner’s Titian Room, but on Monday it will come down for four months and be sent to a show in, appropriately, Florence.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.