First the bad news: In May 2012, a series of powerful earthquakes struck the region of Emilia-Romagna, in northeastern Italy, all but devastating the cities of Ferrara, Mantua, Modena and many other historic towns. Apart from the considerable loss of life, close to 1,300 architectural complexes were damaged, such as churches, abbeys, oratories, castles, civic and aristocratic palaces which were completely destroyed; paintings, sculptures in terracotta, wood and stone, altars, frames, stuccowork; organs, tombs and monuments, and entire decorative complexes were not spared the seismic violence. Many of the region’s artifacts still lie buried beneath the ruins.

The damage and loss of property in Modena amounted to more than 700 million euros. Firemen and local police, working in tandem with the Ministry of Culture, have managed to salvage monuments and works of art or to protect those at risk. Many years of restoration and expenditure to achieve this are ahead. Hundreds of works, most of which date from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, have been moved to other locations pending the completion of reconstruction already underway.

The Galleria Estense is one of Italy’s most prestigious museums, owing its deep and wide collection to centuries of collecting by the renowned Este family. At first the rulers of Ferrara, the Estes moved their capital to nearby Modena in 1598, transforming a medieval complex into a new ducal palace where they could show off their vast holdings. Thanks to a bequest from Cardinal Alessandro d’Este in 1624, coupled with the energy and ambition of Duke Francesco I d’Este, the family goods were greatly enriched. True to form, Francesco laid claim to important altarpieces from numerous churches for the collection, and he received two portraits of himself: the Velázquez painting which is the subject of the Met’s exhibition, and a splendid marble bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In 1746, 100 acclaimed paintings were sold to Augustus III of Saxony and are now part of the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, but additional works have since been acquired, giving greater splendor to the Modena collection. The gallery opened to the public in 1845; between 1968 and 1975, it underwent major refurbishment. Due to significant damage sustained in the 2012 earthquake, the Galleria Estense is currently closed to the public while repairs to the museum are ongoing.

The good news is Velázquez’s superb and striking portrait of Duke Francesco I d’Este survived the devastations of the 2012 earthquake and currently hangs in one of the Met’s European Paintings galleries for all to marvel as much at its almost triumphant presence as at the artistic excellence that created it.

Francesco was the quintessential and exemplary 17th century aristocratic ruler, who became duke of Modena and Reggio Emilia in 1629. During his rule, shaped by the Thirty Years’ War, and challenged by the political interests of France and Spain in Italy, Francesco struggled to guide his small state effectively through the perilous waters of international intrigue.

In 1638, Francesco traveled to Spain to make a stronger alliance with King Philip IV, keen to make a good impression on his Italian ally. When he arrived in Madrid, Francesco was given quarters in the new royal residence of the Buen Retiro, where he saw and admired the king’s fabulous art collection. The king bestowed various honors on his guest, but the most important of these was the Order of the Golden Fleece. It was also during this stay that the king commissioned a portrait of Francesco from Diego Velázquez. Originally to be an equestrian portrait, this was changed, because, according to the Modenese ambassador Fulvio Testi, “Velázquez is making the portrait of your highness, which will be marvelous. However, like other men of talent, he has the defect of never finishing and not telling the truth.”


While the large equestrian version was indeed never completed as planned, the artist must have finished this portrait sometime October 24, when Francesco received the Golden Fleece, which he proudly wears in this work, and November 4, when he left Spain to return to Italy.

Executed in a manner very similar to that of the Met’s other celebrated Velázquez portrait of Juan Pareja (who was the artist’s slave), Francesco is rendered in three-quarter length and turned almost completely to the viewer. Set against a completely dark background and encased in his gleaming armor, the sitter’s haughty and sensuous expression makes plain that this is a confident and self-possessed young man at the height of his power. With bravura brushstroke work, Velázquez has presented the magenta swath of sash (out from under which the shining pendant of the Golden Fleece can be seen) that injects not only the sole decisive color in the portrait, but also a contrasting and dramatic diagonal over the powerful verticality of the figure. Much of 17th century Western Europe is reflected in the Francesco portrait; its hauteur, its certainty, its achievements.

The exhibition of the Duke Francesco portrait is one of those occasions at the Met where one work is the show, and the vitrined painting (more about that in a bit) hangs in solitary glory in a small room within the larger European Paintings galleries. It is surrounded by wall labels discussing the 2012 earthquake and its effect on the Modena region and the Galleria Estense, as well as the historical background of the Galleria and information about Francesco and his family. Frankly, it’s a relief to see a show that doesn’t involve miles of walking and volumes of wall labels.

As for the vitrine, this is likely a requirement by the Galleria Estense to protect its beautiful and fragile treasure during its visit abroad. Fair enough. But it is nonetheless an obstacle, a barrier between the portrait’s subject and those who come to see that subject. You must find the right position to minimize the vitrine’s glare, the best placement of your self to engage the Duke’s engagement with you. A small inconvenience, but an inconvenience just the same.

Could it not be argued that Velázquez’s gifts as a portraitist were fully realized by the Duke? In his eyes, we can hear him saying, “Show me and the world what you are made of. Show the world what I am made of.” Clearly, the artist obeyed.

“Velázquez’s Portrait of Duke Francesco I d’Este: A Masterpiece from the Galleria Estense, Modena” will be on view from April 16 to July 14, 2013 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (located at 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street) New York, NY 10028). For more information, please visit or call 212-535-7710.

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Featured image: Velázquez (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez) (Spanish, 1599–1660. “Duke Francesco I d’Este.” 1638. Oil on canvas. Galleria Estense, Modena © su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali.