Art of the Day: Who Were These Guys?

Of “Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages,” a 16th-century Italian painting by Paris Bordon in its collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes, “still unidentified, this high-ranking officer was most likely a member of the Knights Hospitaller, as indicated by his field armor emblazoned with a cross.” The Museum also notes, when discussing the attending pages also depicted in the painting, that such military servants generally came from the wealthiest families.

The name and life story of this high-ranking officer in one of the most powerful militaries of the time, important enough to warrant a painting by one of the greatest artists in Italy, as well as the explanation for the inclusion in this painting of an elegantly dressed, aristocratic Black page — quite unusual for that particular time and place — have both been lost to time.

When historians come across these kinds of mysteries, they search archives, libraries, and historical collections for letters, contracts, inventories and official records that may provide insight into the identities and affiliations of the individuals depicted. They may analyze the symbols, motifs, and visual elements present in the artwork to decipher their meanings and significance; visual cues may lead them to the identity of the subjects.

But in many cases, all of these sources are dead ends.

Here is someone who reached a pinnacle of fame and success, whose image and some vestige of his glory is displayed for millions in one of the world’s greatest museums. And he’s utterly obscure, anonymous, like the corpse of a 19th century pauper in an unmarked grave.

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