In early 1575 Robert Dudley invited to England the Italian Mannerist painter, Federico Zuccaro, who had made his name with allegorical decorations. Mostly working in Italy, in the mid-1570s he had travelled to France, to do work for the Cardinal of Lorraine, and to the Netherlands, where Leicester had him contracted. The idea was to paint a pair of portraits of the queen and himself. These paintings were intended to be displayed at the great festival at Kenilworth Castle in July 1575, an event that would span no fewer than 19 days and was to see the Earl of Leicester’s last, allegoric, bid for Elizabeth’s hand. Zuccaro arrived in England in March 1575 and got to work. In 1584 his contemporary, Raffaello Borghini, noted that Zuccaro had indeed painted life-sized, full-length portraits of both the queen and “Milord Lostre”. Today only two preparatory sketches in black and red chalk survive in the British Museum.
The sketch of Elizabeth has been described by Sir Roy Strong as probably her closest likeness. When first sitting for a portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, in 1572, Elizabeth had expressed her appreciation of Italian artists, “who had the name to be cunningest and to draw best”, as she thought. On the back Zuccaro’s sketch bears a note in his handwriting, “La Rigina Elisabeta de ingiltera | in londra magio 1575”, indicating it was made in May 1575. A column encircled by snakes can be discerned in the background, symbolizing fortitude and constancy – and with the snakes – prudence. On top of the column sit a little dog and (much smaller) an ermine, symbols of fidelity and purity, respectively. These are about the earliest examples of elaborate allegory in the queen’s portraiture. Elizabeth is holding a fan of feathers; Leicester gave her a similar fan in 1574, decorated with his personal badge, the white (muzzled) bear: “a fan of white feathers set in a handle of gold, the one side thereof garnished with two very fair emeralds … and fully garnished with diamonds and rubies, and the backside … garnished with diamonds and rubies, and on each side a white bear and two pearls hanging, a lion ramping with a white muzzled bear at his foot.”
Il Conte Roberto de leicestre | Milord lestre favorito de la | Reina d’Ingilterra nel 1575 | londra fedco Zucharo.
The earl is partly dressed in a suit of armour identified as a set of “purple and gilt armour for field, tilt and tourney course”, made at the Royal Workshop at Greenwich early in Elizabeth’s reign. Robert Dudley would then have been in his late twenties, while he would have been almost 43 at the time of Zuccaro’s visit. A full-length oil painting of Leicester that was clearly based on the Zuccaro sketch survived until the Second World War. In it he wore another Greenwich armour in his possession, now in the Royal Armouries. The armour in the lost painting was painted over an earlier version resembling the suit of armour in the sketch – a change that would have been made according to Leicester’s wishes. Other than the lost portrait, which may have been a copy, Zuccaro’s sketch is of exceptional quality and surely gives a perfect impression of Robert Dudley’s presence and his irresistible charm.
The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. Volume I. (ed. J. G. Nichols, 1823).
Hearn, Karen (ed.) (1995): Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630. Rizzoli.
Watkins, Susan (1998): The Public and Private Worlds of Elizabeth I. Thames & Hudson.