Friday, October 18, 2019

A Curious Portrait of a Man Stabbed 57 Times That Might Actually Depict William Shakespeare

Above: called David Rizzio (Royal Collection, image via wikicommons) Inscribed 'Davd Rizzo MDLXV.' (1565). Note the opened pocket on the doublet sleeve, an Elizabethan detail that disappeared from the portrait during its recent restoration.
Note: there is an update regarding a recent email from the Royal Collection at the bottom of this post. 

Well over a decade ago I became interested in this portrait, kept in the Royal Collection and said to depict the thoroughly murdered David Rizzio, for three reasons: the sitter's resemblance to Shakespeare, the way the portrait's background contained all the telltales of having been scrubbed of heraldry/inscriptions etc, and the sitter's very familiar looking signet ring. More recently I became intrigued by the sitter's fountain-style falling collar, which, by coincidence, is almost identical to the collar that the Royal Collection used to debunk their Hampton Court portrait of Shakespeare. This spill collar, supported by an under-propper to keep it off the shoulders (in this case) and edged with a border of Italian cutwork, also known as reticella, apparently came into style c. 1620--that is, well after Shakespeare's death (hence the use of this collar in an attempt to debunk the Hampton Court portrait of Shakespeare). But here we have the same fall collar in a portrait dated 1565 by its inscription. So what's going on?
Above: Called Rizzio (left, Royal Collection, image via Wikicommons) and the Hampton Court Shakespeare (right, Royal Collection).  
Above: In 1940 CW Barrell published an article in SI arguing that his IR's on the Hampton Court portrait had revealed a hidden Elizabethan collar beneath the overpainted one now visible. Barrell also detected a hidden collar in the Ashbourne portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library) seen above. Scientific American vigorously defended Barrell's claim in a subsequent lawsuit in which the Folger Shakespeare Library issued a pubic apology to Barrell.
The Hampton Court portrait was acquired from Penshurst Castle by King William IV under the premise it depicted Shakespeare. In the early 1940's Scientific American published an article by CW Barrell arguing that his recent spectral testing (x-rays & infrareds) of the portrait had revealed an Elizabethan collar buried beneath the overpainted Jacobean collar. Barrel further claimed, with evidence (see above) that the controversial Ashbourne portrait of Shakespeare also had an Elizabethan collar buried beneath its overpainted Jacobean one.

The Called Rizzio portrait (top post) was presented to Queen Elizabeth II by the Countess of Middleton in 1953, although it's unclear why the queen would have desired a portrait of the hideously murdered Rizzio. The portrait was previously listed as "a portrait of an unknown musician," which seems odd since it has an inscription identifying it as Rizzio. The Royal Collection webpage states the following in regard to the sitter's costume:
The inscription identifies the sitter as Rizzio and dates the portrait to 1565, a year before his murder. This inscription was presumably added (in hope) some time after the portrait was painted, for the costume here belongs to the 1620s . . . This young musician wears a purplish jerkin with lace cuffs and a large white ruff; he holds a five-stringed violin in his left hand and the bow in his right.
First off I'm not sure it's a "purplish jerkin." Jerkin were short-sleeved and worn like a jacket over doublets. This item appears to be a leather doublet, or maybe a buff coat, that is, of one piece, long-sleeved, and worn over a shirt (and made of either ox or buckskin). The buff coat or jerkin was an informal garment used for hunting or traveling that was also often used to showboat a sitter's military background in the same way a gorget or a scarf tied across the chest was used. It's a curious garment for a court musician to be wearing. A gold-gilt braid border appears visible along the edges of the shoulder wings. The doublet sleeves appear padded with bombast above the elbow but form fitting below. This style was known as mutton sleeves and is associated with Elizabethan fashion. Bombast went out of style around 1600.  

(By the way, an extreme close-up photograph of the now restored portrait is available on the Royal Collection website. And Wikicommons has a large photo of the portrait prior to its recent restoration. And here is a link to a great write up on the leather jerkin at the Museum of London website.)
Here's where things get interesting. A recent restoration of this portrait apparently eliminated one distinct feature of the doublet, its unique sleeve pocket worn open with laces (or perhaps point-tied) fastenings visible. This sleeve pocket is not consistent with the c. 1620 fashion, so it's fascinating that the pocket disappeared entirely during the portrait's most recent restoration. (I've written the Royal Collection about this and will update when I hear back.) I'm curious as to why this detail was eliminated and find it unlikely that some later artist in-painted this uniquely fastened sleeve pocket to the portrait, especially since the blue ground of the portrait is exposed all around it. Was the portrait x-rayed or IRed as part of this recent restoration? (Again, I will update when I find out.) All I can say for now is that the one detail that established this portrait as strictly Elizabethan disappeared from the portrait.  

Above: pocket sleeve with fasteners that are either lacing, or points, or maybe even hook-and-eye. The entire sleeve pocket vanished during the most recent restoration of the Called Rizzio portrait (Royal Collection; image via wikicommons). Note the bluish ground of the portrait, meaning we are very close to the panel itself. Also there appears to be bombast padding exposed by the open pocket. Bombast would indicate the portrait to be Elizabethan as such padding when out of style by the turn of the century.
Antonia Graser 1994 book Mary Queen of Scots described David Rizzio as ugly, short, and hunch-backed, so again we have to wonder if this handsome jack is Rizzio. It's worth remembering that Rizzio was murdered--stabbed 57 times--when Mary Queen of Scots was six-month's pregnant. Her husband Lord Darnley believed, or claimed to believe, that she had been impregnated by Rizzio. Her son, perhaps the bastard love child of a rank fiddler, would grow up to become James I, King of Great Britain. So the stakes are high here, and Mr. Rizzio is hardly a courtier the royal family would like to draw attention to.
Above: Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection; image via wikicommons) & stipple engraving of Rizzio (NPG; image via wikicommons). The original print of the engraving states it was copied from a portrait of Rizzio painted in 1562 by an unknown artist "in the possession of H. C. Jennings, Esq." (Could this be the portrait it was copied from?) The recently restored version of the Called Rizzio portrait currently on the Royal Collection website has eyes that more resemble the engraving's than the eyes did prior to restoration.
Above: the Called Rizzio sitter's eyes before the restoration (left) and after (right). Note how the irises have been enlarged and darkened and now more resemble the known stipple engraving of Rizzio seen above.
The Royal website makes no mention of the sitter's signet ring when discussing costume. It's odd for a musician to wear such a ring, but perhaps this detail can be explained by Rizzio's quick rise from being a bass singer in Mary's court to his being installed as her Secretary to France. The matrix of the ring appears sloppily overpainted with its initials off-center. To my eye this looks scamped, as if somebody wanted us to believe this is David Rizzio. I strongly suspect it is not Rizzio. I'll return to the signet ring in a moment.

Yet another enigma is that the sitter appears to have originally been painted as bald or with a receding hairline. No artist would ever paint a sitter bald and then add hair later; yet we can see evidence of the sitter's bald pate behind the two-tone hair (note: this discoloration might be due to pigment damage or aging varnish). Also why is his hair black on one side and auburn on the other? It's curious.
Above: this detail reveals what appears to be a bald pate that was later overpainted with hair (Royal Collection, image via wikicommons). The black hair resembling a dyed comb-over is especially odd since the darker hair is depicted on the lighter side of the portrait in regard to the change of color along the background.
Above: the Marshall portrait of Shakespeare (left, Folger Shakespeare Library), Called David Rizzio (center, Royal Collection) and the Droeshout engraving (Folger Shakespeare Library, right). Click on the image to magnify.
As to this fountain-style fall collar, it shows up once again in the history of bard portraits in the miniature of Shakespeare attributed to Laurence Hilliard. Note the Hilliard miniature's resemblance both to the Hampton Court Shakespeare and to this portrait Called Rizzio. I am currently trying to find the original of the Hilliard miniature of Shakespeare (seen below in a copy). Any help with this would be appreciated.
Above: copy of Laurence Hilliard's miniature of Shakespeare by TW Harland  (left, National Portrait Gallery, London) & and portrait Called Rizzio (Royal Collection, right).
And below is a comparison of the Rizzio portrait with an early copy of the Hunt portrait. My upcoming book STALKING SHAKESPEARE (Scribner, 2021) will argue that this Hunt copy, painted directly atop of a photograph of the Hunt portrait that was taken before the Hunt portrait was itself mysteriously overpainted in London, is likely one of our most authentic portraits of Shakespeare.
Above: Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection) &amp and an early copy of the Hunt portrait (Stratford Birthplace Trust) that reveals a horse-shoe shaped discoloration along the forehead of the Hunt copy.
And finally, for benefit of the Oxfordian readers, here is a comparison of the Rizzio portrait with Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was considered an excellent musician and played multiple instruments. De Vere's upbringing was steeped in music and he was a great patron of musicians. To this I will add that the violin originated in the early to mid 16th century in Italy and migrated from Italy to England.
Above: the Welbeck portrait of Edward de Vere (Welbeck Abbey, image from wikicommons, left), Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection, image from wikicommons, center) and c. 1987 post-cleaning photo of the controversial Ashbourne portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library, right).
Above: hand with signet ring from the Ashbourne portrait (left, Folger Shakespeare Library) & hand with signet ring from Called Rizzio (Royal Collection).
All Oxfordians are convinced that the Ashbourne portrait had its Elizabethan collar overpainted in order to mis-identify it as Hugh Hamersley (whose facial features were also in-painted onto the portrait long before it was officially re-identified as Hamersley). We know, via Scientific American, that the Hampton Court Shakespeare likely had its Elizabethan collar overpainted with the Jacobean fountain collar now visible (see above). So does the Called Rizzio portrait from c. 1570 actually depict the young Edward de Vere with his trusty violin? Or is it Jacobean, which would mean it's neither de Vere or Rizzio?

Expect some updates to this posts.

I just received an email from the Royal Collection. The most important reveal is that all the conservation notes from the portrait's 1974 restoration (its only restoration of note) have been lost. (This loss-of-notes has happened so many times with Shakespeare-related portraits I am losing track.) The letter insinuated the sleeve-collar was presumably removed because it had been added to the portrait, but there's no mention of how this was determined or if x-rays or IRs were employed. The letter also implied the sleeve might have been added to make the portrait appear Elizabethan. The inscription was added later apparently. The email also stated the jerkin is actually a doublet (just as I argued) and likely not leather.  It sure looks like leather to me.

A letter in the portrait's file once described the portrait as a "problem picture." I would agree. 


  1. Interesting article.

    The curious fact that they lost the records is telling to say the least. The SBT and the Stratford town council have been doing things like this since the early 19th century so that tourist dollars can still roll in (it has been pegged at around $500 million annually, so I can see their reluctance to see reason). Now we can add the National Portrait Gallery to the list of those who never want to understand that they may not have gotten things right with regard to the "hard bard".

    In relation to the Marshall portrait, I posted a series of graphics on the ShakesVere Facebook group which show that it is really a puzzle portrait that has clues to the authorship of the poems inside the John Benson published book. If you are interested I could send them to you.

    Thanks for doing such good work.

    1. 500 million! Yikes. I think the NPG is at times guilty of institutional bias--especially in their debunking of the Flower portrait, but I've also found their staff to be incredibly helpful. Their boy is always going to be the Chandos portrait. So be it. I have nothing against the Chandos except it's a bad painting that doesn't interest me. The Marshall portrait I love--unlike the Chandos it has character--but I don't have the kind of mind that delves too deeply into Elizabethan conceits, because even if you solve the conceit correctly so few people will care. Once it gets complicated the battle is lost. (I'm too cynical.) But I would still love to read the graphics you mentioned on the Marshall if you can leave me the link. The Marshall reminds me of the Hampton Court (my fav Shakespeare). Many thanks.