Emilian School, Late 16th Century

Portrait of Hernán Cortés (Ferdinandus Cortesius)

inscribed ‘FERDINANVS CORTESIVS’ (upper edge)
oil on canvas
64.8 x 50.2 cm (25½ x 19¾ in)

The proud and imperious gentleman depicted in this late sixteenth-century portrait is Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), a Spanish conquistador famed for his explorations of Mexico and defeat of the Aztec empire. He is dressed primarily in black, giving him an austere appearance, which is slightly softened by the rich fur collar of his cloak. Cortés’ considerable girth fills much of the canvas and the strong lines of his face and ample facial hair contribute to his imposing presence.

Portrait of Hernán Cortés (Ferdinandus Cortesius) may relate to a lost portrait of the conquistador, which was one of four hundred portraits depicting eminent Europeans, amassed by Paolo Giovio (1483-1552) for his villa-museum in Borgovico, near Como. Although Giovio’s collection no longer remains, as in time the pieces were destroyed or dispersed, the subjects are known today through painted copies commissioned by Cosimo I de’Medici. The painting of Cortés was copied by Christofano di Papi dell’Altissimo (fl.1552-d.1605), a pupil of Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572) and Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556), in 1552, and is now in the Uffizi. The copy has notable similarities with the present work in that the sitter’s Latin name is inscribed along the upper edge and he is depicted in an identical fashion, wearing a black doublet, fur lined cloak and soft crowned hat. Although the compositional resemblance is evident, the virtuosity and expressiveness of Portrait of Hernán Cortés (Ferdinandus Cortesius) far outshines the copy.

Cortés was born in the Spanish city of Medellín in 1485 and in his youth decided to seek his fortune in the New World. His travels began at the age of eighteen when he sailed to the island of Hispaniola in the West Indies and later participated in the Spanish conquest of Cuba in 1511. He became Mayor of Santiago de Cuba but, dissatisfied with a sedentary lifestyle, in 1519 he led an expedition to Mexico, which was ruled by the Aztec emperor, Montezuma II. On arriving in Mexico, Cortés made his way inland to the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlán, befriending the indigenous population along the way to aid in the Aztec defeat. Although his first attempt to capture Tenochtitlán was foiled, Cortés returned to the capital in 1521, which finally fell after a three month siege. He was rewarded with the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca. His explorations continued over the following years and he made several more journeys to Central America, before finally settling in Spain in 1541. Cortés was famed as much for the great riches that he plundered from Mexico as for his military conquests. Due to Cortés’ controversial undertakings and the scarcity of reliable sources about him, historians have long found it difficult to assert anything concrete about his personality or motives. The present work appears to provide as useful an account as any about the nature of his character, which from the way he commands the viewer’s attention, was clearly strong, authoritative and determined.