Over the course of two days in January 1770, the not-quite-14-year-old Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart posed for a handsome portrait while in Verona with his father. For the sitting he wore a fine red jacket and powdered wig, and he dangled his bejewelled fingers on a harpsichord’s keys (his ring is thought to have been the one given to him by Prince Joseph Wenzel von Fürstenberg in return for a concert). The gifted child musician looked every inch the debonair young gentleman.
The picture wasn’t commissioned by Mozart or his father, but by the composer's host in the city — Pietro Lugiati, the Receiver-General for the Venetian Republic. The setting for the picture is his music room. The instrument probably also belongs to him.
Three months after the painting had been finished, Lugiati penned a letter to Mozart’s mother, praising the boy, as well as the painting. ‘Since the beginning of the present year our city has been admiring the most highly prized person of Signor Amadeo Volfango Mozart, your son, who may be said to be a miracle of nature in music,’ he declared.
‘I have conceived such a regard for him that I had him painted from life... This charming likeness of him is my solace, and serves moreover as incitement to return to his music now and again.’
Astrid Centner, Head of Old Master Paintings in Paris, says that the identity of the artist remains uncertain.
‘It was most probably painted by the Veronese master Giambettino Cignaroli, who was Lugiati’s cousin. He wrote that Mozart and his father had visited his studio,’ she explains. ‘But an alternative attribution to Saverio dalla Rosa, Cignaroli’s nephew, has been suggested. It could also even be by a combination of both hands.’
Whoever the artist was, he posed Mozart in front of Lugiati's 200-year-old Renaissance harpsichord, which was built by the celebrated maker Giovanni Celestini in 1583.
‘Mozart’s famously large and alert eyes glare at the viewer as if he has just been interrupted mid-recital,’ says the specialist. The piece of music in front of him is marked molto allegro, and is now nicknamed ‘Allegro of Verona, KV 72a in G Major.’ It is known only through this painting.
According to some music experts, the piece sounds like the work of the Venetian composer Baldassare Galuppi. Others have proposed that it could be a long lost work by the young Mozart himself. In any case, the artist made sure to squeeze the entirety of the score onto the pages — despite the fact that the canvas edge cuts off a large section of one sheet.
Could this have been a directive from Mozart, or Lugiati, in order to record the music he was performing while in Verona? These are the debates that still fuel theories about the identity of the music’s composer, says the specialist.
Five days after the picture was finished it was praised in one of the world’s oldest newspapers, La Gazzetta di Mantova, alongside a glowing review of Mozart’s organ concert in Verona.
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After Lugiati’s death in 1788 the work passed into the collection of the Accademia Filarmonica di Verona. The portrait — one of only five painted of Mozart from life — was rediscovered in 1856 by Leopold von Sonnleithner, an Austrian lawyer and a great friend and patron of Beethoven and Schubert.
It comes to Christie’s from the collection of the Franco-Swiss pianist and conductor Alfred Cortot, one of the 20th century’s greatest interpreters of Chopin, Saint-Saëns and Schumann. It has been with his family since his death in 1962.
The painting will be on view at Christie’s in Paris, 23-27 November.