“Portrait Of Giuliano Cesarini” And “Portrait Of Marquis Massimiliano Stampa” (1557) – When Innocent Megalomania And Pride Of Belonging Are Prerequisites For Self-Respect

Sofonisba Anguissola, “Portrait of Giuliano Cesarini at Age 14, with Page”

Children like to fight and play war from the beginning of history. It’s not surprising that today they continue to do so and that the rulers and the reigning “one-percenters” make a use of children’s proclivity to seek self-respect through victories and conquests and belonging to the group. Who are you when you are nineteen or twenty – just a kid (with bones and muscles of an adult) easily manipulated into pride, hate and warfare? What really surprising is that proneness for megalomaniacal perception of other people as sub-human, and rivalry, competition, hate, fight and wars became more extensive and destructive in spite of all the rotating rhetoric of “humanism” and “democracy” in today’s Western societies. It is surprising, until we, as a grasshopper grasps danger, will not grasp that not everybody who is claiming to be a humanist is humanistic, and not everyone claiming to be acting in the interest of democracy cares about democracy.

Let’s take a look at Sofonisba Anguissola’s painting – how disarmingly innocent is the proud face of adolescent Cesarini, how not real and like embellishing toys are his armor, sword, dagger and helmet! Are they not as innocent and “beautiful” as today’s American marine or navy uniforms?

The painting amazes us with its original and meaningful composition. Giuliano is, as if, moving from childhood/nature/commonality (represented by the younger boy-his page) to the pedestal where he is posing for the painter. This movement symbolizes, it seems, Giuliano’s growth from the child to the adult – from a more natural to an elevated and aggrandized condition. Very important is the presence, to Cesarini’s right, of the vertical motif of the decorative stand with his pompous helmet and a fluffy bouquet of artificial feathers and flowers that at first glance looks like plumage of Giuliano’s helmet. Although this is not the case, the presence of a bouquet near the helmet reinforces the air of pomposity and self-aggrandizement that is inseparable from Cesarini’s pose and facial expression.

The page is obviously fascinated with his young patron’s sword (as a matter of fact, he is, as if, demonstrating it to the painter with pride and joy for his master!). The reddish color of his clothing connotes his humanity and aliveness. But the yellowish tonality of Giuliano‘s clothing combined with his shining armor, pale face and the whitish ruff collar signal his “sunny” and even “metaphysical” nature. He belongs to the vertical visual construction on the margin of the painting by proudly keeping his hand on his helmet.

While looking at the painting we can start to feel the slight irony moving the paintress’ inspiration. Of course, she is not laughing at Giuliano who is just a fourteen years old. She is rather ironic about the aristocratic culture (she herself belongs to) that is making its children to look for self-respect through the elevating glory of their titles, power and beauty of the weapon, and consciousness of being chosen in this world. Look at the huge haft of his sword that his page admiringly touches with both hands. Isn’t Sofonisba Anguissola laughing here that Giuliano is too young for an adult sword? The very punctum of the painting is the location of Cesarini’s dagger (in relation to his posture). Look attentively at this funny detail, this curious element of the painting – isn’t it amazing that in 16th century it was possible in a portrait of a member of aristocracy, made for a substantial fee, to make such joke that Sofonisba Anguissola, a woman, a painter with fame and prestige, was willing to make? The very contrast between the sizes of the sword and the dagger suggests the absurdity of megalomaniacal adulthood as a phallic dream of domination and conquest in the human child. This painting is a contemplative representation of megalomania of the medieval European aristocracy, softened by humor and compassion for the young people who should not be named responsible for the culture they belong to. In this portrait Anguissola critically addresses not only aristocratic culture but this culture’s concept and pedagogy of masculinity.

In the history of art, Anguissola is not considered a painter of super-historical dimension, but she is certainly underrated as an artist who is able to creatively deviate from the conventions of the genre in order to express her personal ideas. She has the internal freedom to be psychologically independent from her wealthy patrons who commissioned her work.

Sofonisba Anguissola, “Portrait of Marquis Massimiliano Stampa” (1557)

In Anguissola’s portrait of youthful Marquis Stampa the composition follows that of the portrait of Cesarini, although in a semantically toned down/softened manner. There are no steps up to a solemn platform for posing for the painter. Massimiliano stands on the floor – on the same level where his dog is vegetating between boredom and sleeping. There is no movement from nature to glory. Massimiliano Stampa’s face is not irradiating pride for being a Marquis. What we can read on it is just a strain typical of this age when the child feels himself under the observing gaze of an adult. But the vertical construction (on the margin of the painting) Massimiliano relies on with his right arm is similar with the one we observed in the portrait of Cesarini. The white column signifying a high position in society buttresses the boy-marquis like the embellished helmet – the young Cesarini.

The sleeping dog, here, has the same semantic function as the page in the previous painting – it symbolizes nature (here, not with the attribute of being just alive, without glory, but in the vegetative, passive – sleepy condition). His wide open eyes – an inquisitive and a little bit challenging gaze of Massimiliano Stampa, his erected pose and the rapier emphasize his contrast to the natural world (of the pages, dogs, peasants and soldiers). The childish gesture of Massimiliano’s left hand that, as if, presses his weapon to his body (in order to unconsciously state that it is his, that he is its owner), is not invoking the idea of preparation for future battles but just telling about the ritual connection between medieval aristocracy and its very destiny of proud armed masculinity for its men.

Sofonisba Anguissola’s (1530 – 1620), self-portrait