Flash Post: Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Italy was the so called, Raphael Room, in the Vatican. I will post about that in a longer piece, at another time. Ever since being there, however, I can’t stop thinking about Raphael’s portrait of his friend, Baldassare Castiglione, which hangs in the Louvre, in Paris.


It is one of my favorite paintings ever. It was probably painted in Rome between 1514-1515, to celebrate Castiglione’s appointment as Ambassador to the Pope by the Duke of Urbino. He had earlier been ambassador to England. Castiglione became widely famous for his book “The Courtier” which was published in 1528. The book summed up the taste and culture of the Renaissance, extolling the virtues of harmony, beauty, and elegance among others. It was a profound political as well as cultural document. Castiglione was also widely known for his poetry and essays. The two were close friends and shared a deep affection, as well as sensibility, which I think comes through clearly in the painting.

The whole tone of the painting is muted and harmonious, direct, but subtle. The painting has a very limited palette of mostly black, grey and white, and umber in the background. Castigione’s outfit looks incredibly luxurious, yet is treated overall in broad shapes that seem quite simplified. There is a wonderful movement of outline around the hat and down through the grey sleeves and white shirt. The subject is bathed in a soft, warm, indirect light, that helps make Baldassre’s gaze seem direct and unaffected, without the least bit of deception or hauteur. His openness of expression is utterly disarming. (The pose itself refers to the Mona Lisa, which Raphael had seen.)

Raphael’s brushwork is simply bravura. His mastery of draughtsmanship, color, and composition is superlative. What I so often find in Raphael’s work that knocks me out, is a profound and subtle harmony whose quality is totally unique. His draughtsmanship can be detailed, but is also made to fit into a broad, simplified abstraction of form that can feel very modern. There is always a sense of solid three dimensionality to his figures, landscapes and architecture. This solidity of volume beneath the form, reminds me of Cezanne and Picasso, but with an extraordinary lightness of touch. Only two other painters I can think of, Velasquez and Manet, used black as effectively.

Raphael’s greatness is sometimes overshadowed by Leonardo and Michelangelo in the popular mind. The very top of the peak of Mt. Olympus may have two towering figures, shoulder to shoulder, but I believe there is another figure there, one with his foot on the ledge, and his head above the clouds.

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12 Comments on "Flash Post: Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione"

  1. Who are the two statues atop Mt. Olympus? Zeus and ?

  2. Helen says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, unless one has been to art school or to an abundance of museums over time, it is easy to forget the other “greats.” This painting is wonderful…for all the reasons you mentioned. Even an unskilled eye could respond to this painting. It has an openness about it that makes that face very approachable and feeling modern. To be honest, I have looked at this image in at least 20 years…and forgot how much I like it! The eyes have it…for me.

  3. kathy says:

    I’d never noticed the similarity in pose and palette with the Mona Lisa before. Really interesting….

    • David Leeds says:

      I never noticed the similarity of pose until I was researching this. Leonardo, in his own time was considered a mammouth genius, and it is is known that Raphael saw the Mona Lisa prior to this portrait.

  4. David, you continue to give me ideas of what I want to see at the Louvre when I am in Paris. I will seek out this painting for sure. What a wonderful description of this beautiful painting. I can’t wait to see it in person and then go find the Mona Lisa to compare. Your blog has become a mini-art history course for me!

  5. centuries have past, wars have been fought, enemies are now allies, but when i look at something like this i see the strength of beautys remains.the value of art is priceless

  6. edward jamieson says:

    i dont like people telling me the ‘mona lisa’ is the greatest painting in the world. it is very nice & all, but walking through the louvre you see all kinds of much more interesting works on view. at my local gallery in glasgow, there are one or two portraits by relatively obscure artists that i have a much stronger connection with. sorry leo.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard