Widely praised by art historians since for his ability to bring out the inner lives of his subject, Titian stands alongside Velazquez and Rembrandt as one of the acknowledged all time greats of portraiture. His painting style, steeped as it was in the Italian Renaissance was marked by his mastery of colour and tone, and by 1529 had acquired a restrained power which is fully displayed in the portrait of Federico II Gonzaga.
The portrait was commissioned by Federico II, the Duke of Mantua, possibly in connection with his wedding, which took place in the same year. It's a flattering depiction of the Duke, as all commissions tend to be, it was bad business for the artists of Titian's day to do anything but bring out the best of their subject. What Titian does is use his consummate skill to convey the power and confidence that comes from the Duke's position.
A three-quarter length oil painting, the portrait depicts the Duke gazing confidently at the painter, and by implication the observer, his gaze is cool and calm, this is a man who is undoubtedly the master of his situation, luxuriantly bearded and impressively dressed, he radiates power. Dressed in a blue doublet, it is Titian's exceptional ability with colour which enables the painting to sing from the canvas: in the hands of a lesser artist, a royal blue against a dark background would be devoid of light and life, but Titian lends it a depth and vibrancy.
The use of light in the painting is exceptional, Titian picks out the highlights in the trim of the doublet and illuminates the face of his subject so that it almost glows. Federico poses with a dog at his waist, holding up a paw to its master, with its light fur adding another source of warmth. The presence of the dog adds credence to the theory that this painting was connected to Federico's marriage - the presence of a dog in a portrait of this time signified fidelity and steadfastness. More obvious symbolism is the sword hanging at Federico's hip. Medieval Princelings had to know how to wield power militarily as well as politically.
In all, it's a heady mixture of signifiers. In what can be a restrictive format, Titian manages to draw out the character of Federico, as well as portray him in a light which, undoubtedly flattering to the subject, is also a powerful message to anyone viewing the portrait: here is a man not to be trifled with. Titian's loose brushstrokes and command of subtle shifts of tone lend this piece an historical importance, marking as they do the development of the Venetian School of the Renaissance. The painting hangs today in the Museo del Prado, in Madrid.