Been on Sicily for a few days and already I’m seeing parenting, Italian-style. So might flow an average day for an under-two bambino Italiano: get up, get dressed and get hoisted on a hydraulic car-lift by the mechanic fixing Mama’s car. Stop for a cornetto (croissant) and a succo d’arancia (orange juice) and help the barman make afore-mentioned Mama a caffe. Next it’s post-prandial perching on the vespas parked outside (perhaps a spin, if an owner is near) and later it’s stopping at the alimentari (deli) to choose cheese, meat and bread for lunch (plus a proffered slice of something to nibble on). All the while the tot’s being kissed and coddled by a complement of complete strangers exclaiming “bellissimo/ bellissima!”
The Italians might just be the most child-centric race on the planet, and there’s a looseness and confidence to their approach: it seems that as long as the kid’s in socks (or sandals in the case of the Sicilian sun) and is eating well (mangia bene), you’re doing due duty. There’s less of the obsessive micro-management you see more of in other countries, where the culture of raising ‘perfect progeny’ can create fear and neuroses among mums and dads. In Italy you’ll see plenty of spoon-feeding, but it’s a nip of wine at a late-night dinner with friends, or a chunk of the sugar-coated biscotto that came with a cappuccino.
But there’s one small Italian boy I’ve come across at the NGA who’s not enjoying the usual fun and freedom of his homeland’s parenting, usually so focussed on letting kids be themselves: this is a portrait of Ranuccio Farnese (1542) by Titian (c. 1485/90 – 1576). Titian was the greatest painter of the Venetian school: he had a long and prolific career in which he revolutionized every genre of painting that he worked in, including portraits like this, which were in great demand.
Ranuccio was a member of the powerful, aristocratic Farnese family and was 12 years old when Titian painted his portrait. He’d been sent to Venice by his grandfather, Pope Paul III, to become the prior of an important property belonging to the Knights of Malta (see the heraldic cross of that order emblazoned on the boy’s left lapel). Ranuccio went on to carve an impressive career in the church.
As is typical of a Titian portrait, the brilliance of his technique comes shining through. He limits his palette to black, white and rose, and enlivens the surface with sheen: there’s a dim gleam on the sleeves of the velvet cloak, a steady glow across the bodice and a fitful flicker on the satin of the Maltese Cross. There’s even a slim crescent of light sitting on the right thumbnail.
But it’s the ‘boy that would be man’ bit that gives this image such poignancy, pulled into prominence by Titian’s pin-sharp character insight. Made archbishop of Naples at 14, and cardinal at 15 (he was dubbed cardinalino – small cardinal – for his young age), adult responsibility came to Ranuccio as a child. This is the thing Titian apprehended and suggested simply yet starkly in the boy’s cloak of office, which looks too cumbersome by far and is seen sliding off slender shoulders. The same thought is there in the features of the face, set into an expression of youthful anxiety. Nowhere is Titian’s genius more obvious than in this image: doesn’t it make you burst with wanting to buy the boy a great big gelato and tell him he’s got the afternoon off?