Borso D’este – Cosimo Tura

1432-—1495

On the authority of Bernhard Berenson this admirable little portrait is thus ascribed in the Altman catalogue. I t has borne many names. When lent to the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 by William Drury Lowe, it was called Portrait of a Youth in Profile by Pietro della Francesca and at the Leeds Exhibition in 1868 it appeared under the same title. This was changed at the Royal Academy Exhibitions of 1884 and 1893 to the Portrait of Sigismundo Malatesta by Pietro della Francesca. The collection of Mr. Lowe was catalogued in 1903 by Jean Paul Richter, who judged our picture to be of the school of Ferrara, attributing it to Francesco Cossa, which attribution was generally accepted up to the time of Mr. Berenson’s pronouncement. Dr. Richter saw in the sitter not Malatesta, the terrible condottiere of Rimini, but rather a member of the family of the magnificence-loving Borso d’Este, perhaps his younger brother, later Duke Ercole.

The publication of the firm of art dealers from whom Mr. Altman acquired the work gives the name of the artist as it now appears but returns to Malatesta as the person represented. The publication states that “this head is clearly a perfect portrait” of him and reproduces a medal by Matteo de Pastis in proof. The resemblance is not convincing, how-ever, either with this medal, which shows a man of middle age, or with a far more famous example which was not cited, the portrait of Sigismundo in prayer before his patron saint by Pietro della Francesca at Rimini.

On the other hand, it is difficult to reconcile the dates of Borso d’Este as sitter (1413–1471) with those of Tura as artist (1432?-1495) in relation to the portrait of a youth who appears to be scarcely twenty. Several undoubted portraits of Borso exist and it is evident that there is a strong resemblance in the features, the nose, mouth, and chin particularly, between these portraits and the young man of the Altman picture. One would call it a family likeness in any event, agreeing thus far with Dr. Richter. In l’Arte Ferrarese nel Periode d’ Ercole I. d’Este, Adolfo Venturi shows that in his capacity as court painter under Borso and Ercole one of Tura’s important functions was the painting of portraits of the reigning family which, according to the custom of the time, were presented or exchanged on state occasions, such as marriages or betrothals. Though none of the many existing records of these portraits could apply to our picture, the theory that it might have been painted for such a purpose is not improbable.