Federigo Gonzaga was the son of Gian Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and the famous Isabella d’Este, the patroness of the great artists of her day. For her Mantegna painted the Parnassus and the Combat between Virtue and the Vices, both now in the Louvre, where also are allegorical paintings by Costa and Perugino, likewise executed at her order for the decoration of the room where she was in the habit of receiving artists and poets. Mantegna’s Virgin of Victory in the same museum contains a portrait of Gian Francesco, the kneeling knight whom the Madonna blesses. This was a votive picture, ordered in 1495, commemorating the battle of Fornovo where, as general of the Venetian army, he won a victory over Charles VIII.
But the Marquis afterward changed sides and in 1509, when commanding the imperial forces and the Milanese, he was surprised and taken prisoner by the Venetians at Legnago. He was liberated in 1510 by the influence of the Pope, who demanded, however, that the young prince Federigo, then ten years old, be sent to the papal court as a hostage. This, being agreed to, led to the painting of our picture; for Isabella, having to part with her son, wished to have a portrait of him to keep by her. On his way to Rome the boy passed through Bologna, where his father was at that time, and Lorenzo Costa was asked to execute the portrait. Costa was unable to undertake the commission and so it was given to Francia, who began work, as we find in Isabella’s correspondence, on July 29, 1510, and delivered the finished portrait before August 10th.
” I t is impossible to see a better portrait or a closer resemblance,” Isabella wrote to her agent in Bologna. ” I am astonished to find out that in so short a time the artist has been able to execute so perfect a work. One sees that he wishes to show all the perfection of which he is capable.” In sending the artist thirty ducats of gold in payment, she asks that he “retouch lightly the hair which is too blond.”
Francia’s answer is as follows: “The thirty ducats is a munificent gift of your Highness; the trouble we have taken in the doing of the portrait of the Lord Federigo does not deserve such a handsome reward. We remain your grateful servant for life.”
The Marquis wished to show the picture to the Pope and at the papal court it fell in some way into the hands of a certain Gian Pietro de Cremona, who tried to appropriate it, but it was eventually returned and Casio, Isabella’s agent, wrote, “The portrait has been recovered and I have brought Francia to the house of the most illustrious Lord Federigo and made him compare the two together. Our conclusion was that it could not be better than it is and that it will completely satisfy your lady-ship.”
It is not pleasant to think that Isabella gave away the likeness of her son, but such seems to have been the fact. The recipient was a gentleman of Ferrara named Zaninello who had done some service for the Marchioness, and to whom she had already sent her own portrait. He writes her, “My lowly dwelling is now exalted, I have become an object of envy and wonder as possessing both Venus and Cupid in my room.”
From this time until 1872 the history of the picture is unknown. In that year it turned up at Christie’s auction rooms in the collection of Prince Jerome Bonaparte. In 1902 it was lent by A. W. Leatham to the Burlington Fine Arts Club Exhibition as A Portrait of a Boy, by Francia, and while there was identified by Herbert Cook as the lost portrait of Federigo Gonzaga.