In 1821 the painting could be found on the antiques market in Florence described as “Portrait of a Young Man”, and at the time it was already considered as Raphael’s work. Paolo Tosio, thanks to the support of Teodoro Lechi, managed to buy it with a certificate of authenticity from Accademia Fiorentina. Along with the Christ Blessing, the other painting already belonging to the collection of Count Tosio, the “Portrait of a Young Man” became one of the most celebrated works among Brescia experts and beyond. Why was the little painting called “Portrait of a Young Man”?
Today, we can recognize him as an Angel even if the painting is only a fragment. The beautiful face gently reclining, the delicate profile, the curly hair described with minute brush strokes clearly belong to an angel. It is possible to see the wing joints, part of his cloth, a white tunic bordered in black with golden threads, a soft neckerchief and a large red cloth dangling from his shoulder. Probably, in order to sell the painting as a work on its own, all the elements that suggested that in fact it was only a fragment had been covered with a thick layer of dark paint.
Let us go back to Tosio then. He bought the piece and, halfway through the nineteenth century, the Angel became part of the civic collection among other paintings donated by Tosio to the city of Brescia. One day, in 1912 Oskar Fischel, an expert in the work of Raphael, recognized in the “Portrait of a Young Man” the face of the first angel to the left of the large altarpiece depicting the Coronation of St. Nicholas of Tolentino painted for the church of Sant’Agostino in Città di Castello. In no time, the painting was restored and the thick black paint was removed to reveal the presence of the wing and other elements that linked the Angel to his original context.
Damaged by the earthquake that in 1789 demolished the church, the Coronation was known as “Baronci altarpiece”, named after the patron who in 1500 commissioned the altarpiece to Evangelista da Pian di Meleto, a painter who worked in Urbino, and to a young Raphael (he was only 17) for a chapel inside the church. After the earthquake, the less damaged pieces, cut and reduced in size, were brought to Rome as ordered by Pope Pio VI. After a short permanence in the Vatican in the Pope’s apartment during a period of political turmoil, the pieces arrived first in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi and then partly scattered on the market, some other pieces ended in Naples as part of the Borbone family collection.
The altarpiece is the first documented work by Raphael. Though Evangelista da Pian di Meleto actually signed the contract and was recognised as “magister”, Raphael in 1494 had inherited his father’s (Giovanni Santi) studio and had the chance to complete his apprenticeship under the supervision of older painters. This helped him tackle prestigious assignments in an environment dominated by the famous Perugino and the all-present Luca Signorelli, whose stylistic characteristics were immediately absorbed by the young Raphael. He studied the complex composition and some of its details in a series of drawings that can be found in Lille, Musée des Beaux Arts, and in Oxford, Ashmolean Museum. Immediately after the earthquake, a partial copy of the lower part of the altarpiece was painted by a minor painter, Ermenegildo Costantini (today it can be seen in the Pinacoteca of Città di Castello), so that in the church could remain a trace of the large painting. Thanks to a comparison with this copy, Fischel identified our Angel and, strange but true, to find another one in 1986 in Paris, where Silvie Béguin seized the opportunity to buy for the Louvre a “Portrait of a Young Man” which resembled the one bought by Tosio.
(Urbino, 1483 – Rome, 1520)
Angel bust, 1500-1501
Oil on wood, transferred on canvas, 31 x 26.5 cm.
Brescia, Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo