The Wallace Collection

Vincenzo Foppa: The Young Cicero Reading c. 1464
Treasure of the Month - March 2012

Vincenzo Foppa: The Young Cicero Reading c. 1464

This delightful fresco comes from the Banco Mediceo (the Medici bank) formerly on the Via dei Bossi in Milan. The building itself was a gift from Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, to Cosimo de' Medici, as a symbol of friendship between Milan and Florence. The prestigious commission to fresco the courtyard of the bank was given to Vincenzo Foppa (c. 1430-1515), the leading Lombard painter of the time. This fresco was painted in c.1464 on the parapet of the upper loggia overlooking the central courtyard. As a witty illusionistic trick (trompe l'oeil), Foppa's fresco, itself a view of an upper loggia, would therefore have functioned as a pictorial extension of the real architecture of the building.

Who is this little boy, absorbed in his reading? It could be a portrait of a boy from the entourage of Francesco Sforza or of the director of the bank, Pigello Portinari. However, the inscription 'M. T. Cicero' identifies the boy as the young Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman senator famed for his skill in rhetoric. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, Cicero was a child prodigy, who possessed remarkable 'natural talent' and 'quickness and intelligence' that inspired the awe of the other boys, and even their fathers, who would 'visit the schools in order to see Cicero with their own eyes'. This scene is a very rare example of the child Cicero in the visual arts. Visitors to the bank would have been inspired by such scenes of the formative years of their illustrious Roman predecessors. The fresco also communicated the idea that this splendid building was not only intended to fulfil the commercial activities of a bank, but also served an important diplomatic function in promoting the cultural activities of both the Medici and the Sforza. The young 'Cicero' wears contemporary clothes, not all' antica, and his relaxed pose and gentle smile communicated his love of learning. Unlike many contemporary images of the education of children, he is not represented with a teacher or father but reads alone. Indeed, he looks quite grown up: he sits in front of a niche full of books which recalls the iconography of a scholar in his studiolo.

The fresco is the only part of the decorative cycle that was saved from destruction when the building was demolished in the early 1860's to make way for the construction of La Scala opera house. Shortly afterwards, it was bought by vicomte Both de Tauzia, Curator at the Louvre, probably during the same trip to Milan on which he acquired the Luini frescos which are now also in the Wallace Collection, displayed near the Foppa in the Sixteenth Century Gallery. The fresco was purchased by Richard Wallace in 1872, along with numerous other works from the Tauzia collection.

Gallery Talks

Monday 5 and Thursday 22 March at 1pm with Dr Lucy Davis, Curator of Old Master Paintings.


Further Reading

John Ingamells: The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures I: British, German, Italian, Spanish. London 1985, p. 278-280