In December 1758, the English writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote excitedly to a friend in Florence:
'The young Earl of Northampton is now here. He is lively and good-natured with what is called a pretty figure.'
This portrait of the earl was made in the same year in Rome, and, while the prettiness or otherwise of his figure might be debated, the painter Pompeo Batoni clearly aims to confirm Montagu's favourable opinion of his character. He's painted an affable, sensitive face, caught in a reflective moment.
Northampton's clothing is impeccably aristocratic. Look at his silk waistcoat, the shoes with red heels matching his fur-lined cape. But this is not a man solely concerned with the material world.
A leather-bound book lies open on the marble table on which he leans. A quill pen in an inkwell is within easy reach. We are to imagine perhaps that the earl has been studying a text and is looking up momentarily to pursue a thought. He ignores the attentions of his adoring dog to gaze into the eyes of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts.
This bust is copied from a statue of the goddess which was particularly popular with English tourists to Rome. In the 1780s, according to the German writer, Goethe, heathen Englishmen used to worship it and kiss its hands.
Pompeo Batoni has been accused of being formulaic. Other portraits use comparable poses, the same bust of Minerva, a similar arrangement of books, a faithful hound. But this ignores the sense of character with which the artist has imbued the earl here.
After looking at this painting, it's hard not to be moved to learn that, only five years later, this young Italophile died of tuberculosis when acting as an ambassador to Venice.
The transcription of the audio file for this stop was enabled by the AHRC funded crowd-sourcing platform MicroPasts. The below generously gave their time to transcribe the file.
Terence Gould, Athena, Adi Levin and Michael Adams