Correggio was one of the great fresco painters of the 16th century. In his Lives, Vasari provides some insight into his personality, describing him as a responsible father who had numerous children. He also noted that he was timid and avaricious as he had to provide for his family. With regard to his work, Vasari noted that Correggio was fully able to overcome any difficulty, as he proved in the dome of Parma Cathedral, that he handled colour well, and that his flesh tones were soft and his overall finish graceful. Correggio may have begun his studies with his uncle Lorenzo Allegri or with the painter Francesco de’Bianchi Ferrari, while his early work reveals a study of the art of Mantegna.
The present portrait has been published as that of a magistrate. It was formerly in the Bolognese collection of Prince Zampieri then in the Somzée collection in Brussels, at which point it was included for the first time in an exhibition held in the Palais des Expositions in Brussels in 1887. It was then sold in 1904 with other works from the Somzée collection, and entered the Hamburg collection of Consul Von Weber prior to 1907. The next owner was Hans Thyssen-Bornemisza, who acquired it in 1928.
The painting was traditionally attributed to Correggio until 1897 when Hymans stated that it was by El Greco. In 1928 Venturi once again gave it to Correggio, considering it to be his earliest portrait. While this attribution is not universally accepted, various critics, including Mayer, have concurred with it.
The image, which has darkened, depicts a man, bust-length, with a long face that is further emphasised by his long, pointed beard. He has a broad, clear brow, pronounced cheekbones and a striking nose and mouth. During the first half of the 20th century this sitter was thought to be a scholar or lawyer, probably due to the clothing as well as to his meditative gaze. The light strongly models this anonymous countenance in which the brushstrokes create nuances in the flesh tones and in which reddish notes are combined with more yellow ones.
Religious and mythological works prevail in Correggio’s oeuvre and few portraits by the artist are known. They include Portrait of a Lady in The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, in which the model poses before a glade of trees on the left, and Portrait of a Man with a Book in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan in which the edge of a forest creates the background for the sitter. Wearing dark clothes, his lowered gaze focuses on the small book in his hands.
The present canvas has been dated to the early 1520s.