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  • The Portrait of an Italian Lira Player in DublinAttalante Migliorati
  • Aby Warburg (bio)
    Translated by Davide Stimilli (bio)

[WIA, III.120.1.]1

[1] Mr. Herbert Cook has supplemented his report2 on this year’s exhibition at the Academy in London with some reproductions of remarkable Italian paintings, which he was granted only by the personal kindness of their respective owners, since the direction of the exhibition had not allowed this time around, strangely enough, the taking of photographs. Precisely because of such reproductions, Mr. Cook has deserved the special gratitude of those who could not themselves travel to London, as the following study, too, could only be spurred and made possible by the reproduction of the paintings themselves.3 —What captivated me, like many other friends of the Italian Quattrocento, I reckon, was above all the portrait of the violin player by an unknown master from the Gallery in Dublin. A musician is shown, as he is tuning his string instrument;4 he plucks with the thumb of his well-trained [End Page 176] left hand the free-running string, as he turns at the same time the peg with the thumb and the index of the right.

[2] Whilst still listening to the fading tone, he turns his eyes for a moment toward the outside world, glancing sideways to the viewer; but the contact with the public locks out of his face no obliging pleasantry, it hardly disturbs him in his tuning; the lips remain caustically shut, they keep an expression of expectant resignation, and he exhibits his lira to the view with its peg box, elegantly decorated with inlaid roses. He presents it with unaffected self-consciousness as his personal organ, like somebody used to claim the attention of the listeners as his own right.

The man cuts a striking figure, but only by virtue of the barest mimic accents—one sees only head, hands and shoulders—his living space, too, is only summarily sketched in the background by stressing skillfully a few elements: above on the wall, spread on two shelves, other musical instruments and books are lying, tools and products of the thinking and creative artist; the wide Italian landscape may still send its fresh breeze in his quiet room through an open window and thus dispel any book dust.

[3] The experts in stylistic analysis do not seem to have agreed on the attribution of the painting to a specific master:5 one hesitated between Raffaellino del Garbo or Ercole Grandi, Cossa or Costa, searching therefore the painter in a circle where Florentine and Northern Italian culture came into contact. To look there for the personality of the musician, as well, is even more reasonable, if one considers that precisely in the field of music and pageantry there existed quite close relationships between Florence, Ferrara and especially Mantua; it is well known that the first court drama all’antica in the Italian language, the “Orfeo” by Poliziano, was created and first performed in Mantua in 1472; it was an occasional poem, which the young Florentine had tailored on his friend and countryman Baccio Ugolini,6 so that he could display his brilliant acting skills in the title role. It required a talented mime and an equally accomplished musician, since Orfeo had to perform a Latin ode to his own violin accompaniment. And yet Baccio Ugolini possessed the talent of improvising almost only as a side act: he was, as far as his actual profession is concerned, [4] a very skillful diplomat in the service of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who employed him as his emissary to Germany.7 [End Page 177]

Historical and stylistic considerations stand therefore univocally in favor of the hypothesis that one recognize in the anonymous lira player in Dublin a character of the sort of a Baccio Ugolini; such a hypothesis can turn, however, into absolute certainty only because the man in the painting gives us a clue in that remarkable sign language, thanks to which the mute can still make a statement in effigy, even centuries after their death, over their real position in the earthly context: the language of their coat of arms. It is certainly not...


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