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01 January 2008 @ 11:52 am
A "Man in Full" - portrait of Alessandro del Borro  

One of my favorite paintings of a fat and imposing man is the Italian Baroque portrait of the Tuscan nobleman and soldier Alessandro del Borro. Some think Velasquez was the painter; others attribute it to Bernardo Strozzi, probably because of its more naturalistic style.

Del Borro studied mathematics and mechanics, but got drawn into the mid-seventeenth century wars against the Ottoman Empire. His command earned him the title "The Terror of the Turks," and ultimately led to his death in a naval battle against the Ottomans off the coast of Corfu in 1656.

In this painting, you really feel del Borro's size. Monroe Beardsley in Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (pg. 300) points out that by bringing del Borro right up to the front of the visual space, the figure doesn't just "tell" of his overwhelming size, but in a way "shows" it:
... Suppose we want to represent a bulky, massive man. We can do so by drawing a small figure at some distance, and setting up the perspective and other objects nearby in such a way that we can read him as a big man, though the shape that represents him is small. But if we bring him up close to the picture-plane, as a portraitist would do, and make him crowd the available picture-space, then the area that represents him will itself be bulky and, if we wish it, massive; here the bulkiness of the man is represented by the bulkiness of the design area. See, for example, Goya's Colossus, Plate VII. We say, colloquially, that we "feel" his bulkiness; we don't merely infer it. [An example is found in] such a painting as the unflattering portrait of Field Captain Alessandro del Borro (date unknown, Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin) attributed, probably incorrectly, to Velasquez. Here the impression of bulk is further increased by placing the Captain between pillars and setting the spectator's eye level at his feet."
Unlike Beardsley, I don't think the portrait of del Borro is "unflattering" at all. As I see it, he stands as sturdy as the column next to him. He's not an epicene dandy, or some symbol of self-indulgence. He peers out from behind his small eyes with a beady stare, daring the viewer to challenge him.

The close proximity, and our lowered vantage point, makes him look especially tall. Also, the vantage point adds to the imposing physicality of his size. (ETA:) David Addison Small does the same thing here with the enormous angelic figure. Seattle artist Brian Murphy, whom I wrote about earlier, uses the same perspective in image #12 in his gallery. In both paintings, the belly bears down on the viewer with an almost overpowering weight. Murphy's #13, #15, #16, #18 and #19 also emphasize the size and breadth of the foreshortened face in the same way. (/ETA)

True, del Borro is not "beautiful" in a classical sense. But while fat women in older paintings may often be idealized, the fat man seldom is. We see him "as he is," and are invited to take him on his own terms.
(Deleted comment)
men_in_full: rubens bacchusmen_in_full on January 2nd, 2008 01:42 pm (UTC)
Thanks! See ETA above, too.
ivyivyblogs on January 2nd, 2008 04:02 pm (UTC)
Mind if I add you to my lj friends list?
men_in_fullmen_in_full on January 2nd, 2008 04:23 pm (UTC)
Go ahead; I'll add you as well. Thanks!
pearlandopalpearlandopal on January 2nd, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
I think the portrait is very flattering to him! He looks composed, dignified, and strong.
men_in_fullmen_in_full on January 2nd, 2008 05:00 pm (UTC)
Hi, and welcome!

Yes, Beardsley's comment was rather prejudiced, I think, but probably based on the typical classical Greek image of the ideal man.

Knowing that del Borro was a military commander who fought against the Ottomans helped me to "see" this painting in a bit more depth. Today a lot of people would just see "ugly fat man," but to me his size is not only attractive but reassuring. If he's standing "in the gap," not much is going to get through ... ; )
pearlandopalpearlandopal on January 2nd, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
Exactly. The context gives it depth as well as the painter's skill. (He's also really huggable.)
men_in_full: iz rainbowmen_in_full on January 3rd, 2008 01:24 am (UTC)
I think he's huggable too! ; )
The Goddamn Wolf Womanslythwolf on February 1st, 2008 01:34 am (UTC)
I was linked to your post from, I believe, the comments to a post at Shapely Prose (I could be wrong; I've got so many tabs open it's a miracle I can remember where I'm even commenting). The discussion was regarding the common assertion that people "didn't used to be fat", which this awesome painting ably refutes.

I think del Borro looks like he's challenging me. He's like, "You want a piece of me? Come over here and say it to my face." Looks like a badass to me.
men_in_fullmen_in_full on February 1st, 2008 03:50 am (UTC)
Hello, and welcome.

I think it's an awesome painting, too. And it makes no sense to say "people didn't used to be fat." But you can see where the idea comes from - take the recent treatment of Henry VIII in HBO's and BBC's versions. In neither is Henry fat - even though by the time he was messing with Ann Boleyn, he was well into his 40s (when his girth started to increase.) It's just another brick in the wall of "invisibility."
boomakhs47 on March 4th, 2008 05:51 am (UTC)
so where exactly did you hear about this painting? do u know where the original is? do u know any history of the painting?

i MIGHT have the original. well my dad might, his dad had aquired it in '45. Since then it has been pretty badly beaten up and is not in very good shape now... but you can tell it is that painting... just dont know if its original or not. please let me know! thanks!
men_in_fullmen_in_full on March 5th, 2008 03:48 am (UTC)
Re: hmmm
I first saw this painting on Wikipedia's page for "obesity." I googled the name (which is garbled on the Wiki page) and found a few things out about it.

The quote from the book above says it was in the Kaiser Friedrich museum. Where the painting is today, I don't know. It's hard to say if your family has an original or not - have you thought of taking it to a local museum and seeing if the curators there can tell?
boomakhs47 on March 5th, 2008 05:20 am (UTC)
Re: hmmm
ok well thank you. ill have to look into a curator (sp?) i guess... ill update you when i find out!