Among the twenty-one paintings by Titian displayed in that treasure-house that is the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, one of the finest and best preserved is a magnificent likeness of the poet and historian Benedetto Varchi (1503–65), a Florentine humanist. The handsome young man is portrayed wearing a dark, unadorned academic’s gown; the object of his serene but oblique gaze is unseen at right. What Varchi nonchalantly holds in his right hand is probably a petrarchino,or small edition of Petrarch’s sonnets. As in his best portraits, Titian conveys to the viewer a direct and natural glimpse of the sitter who was a confident, congenial intellectual. Executed about 1540, at the midpoint in the humanist’s career, the portrait projects an aura of repose and equilibrium despite the fact that Varchi was in exile, shuttling between Venice, Padua, and Bologna after having run afoul of adverse...


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