To celebrate International Portrait Day in collaboration with The National Portrait Gallery, this exclusive Portrait Mode edition of Spotlight is dedicated to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610). We are delighted to celebrate his legacy and delve into his rediscovered Portrait of a Gentleman with a Ruff – a rare addition to the small number of portraits by Caravaggio that are known today.
The unrivalled artistic brilliance of Caravaggio, whose revolutionary style left an indelible mark on European art, requires little introduction. A pioneer of unmitigated realism, he boldly rejected the highly mannered style and idealised classicism that dominated Italian art at the time. Although Caravaggio’s early success was achieved through his religious paintings, he began his artistic journey as a portraitist in Milan, and it seems fitting that this remarkable advocate of naturalism would spend his formative years painting subjects from life. In the mid-1590s, Caravaggio moved to Rome, and it was against the vibrant backdrop of the papal city that his career flourished, propelling him to the forefront of artistic innovation and establishing his reputation as one of the most coveted artists in history. By 1599, his signature use of chiaroscuro, the realistic three-dimensionality of his work, and the resulting visceral storytelling of his compositions had fully matured.
Caravaggio executed this Portrait of a Gentleman with a Ruff during his mature years in Rome and it is one of the few surviving portraits by his hand. In The Klesch Collection’s latest publication, Gianni Papi proposes that the enigmatic sitter is likely the lawyer Andrea Ruffetti, Caravaggio’s friend and a central figure during his last years in Rome. Caravaggio lodged with the jurist from October 1605 until he fled Rome in 1606. Thus, it seems likely that this elegantly subdued, yet gripping portrait, was a token of gratitude for his friend’s hospitality. In the portrait, Caravaggio places Ruffetti under sharply dramatic light, which bounces off the ruff that frames his self-assured and calm expression. The immediacy and proximity to the picture plane seem to place Ruffetti directly in the viewer’s space, blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Given the anecdotes surrounding Caravaggio’s aversion to letting his subjects pose in daylight, it is easy to envision this talented artist transforming an attic room in Ruffetti’s townhouse into a dark stage. The apparent simplicity of the composition, achieved with a single focused light source and monochromatic palette, allowed Caravaggio to create with uncontended genius a profoundly personal and enthralling likeness of his friend.
The portrait exhibits all the compelling characteristics of Caravaggio’s style, showcasing his pictorial efficiency through the precise highlights and purposeful brushwork, particularly evident in the sitter’s glistening eyes and geometric collar. Echoing this luminous collar, Caravaggio uses the white cuff to draw attention to the well-lit hand in the foreground, holding a handkerchief. Both elements are executed with rapid, non-mimetic brushstrokes, applied to the canvas with meticulous care. True to Caravaggio’s distinct style, Ruffetti’s pupils were painted using cerulean blue instead of mere black, intensifying the scrutinising gaze befitting of a man of the law.
With an exceptional mastery of realism that only a few possessed, Caravaggio effectively conveyed Ruffetti’s character and personality through what might initially appear as a simple portrait, lending his friend a relatable and eternal quality. The ripple effect of Caravaggio’s captivating realism, exemplified by this portrait, reverberated throughout 17th-century Europe, and the enduring contribution of his ground-breaking art continues to inspire and enrapture audiences four centuries later.