Although the sitter remains unidentified, Solimena's sharp perception of character, the elegance and refinement of the precious clothing, the chromatic intensity, and the richly decorative setting serve to emphasise the sitter's status. The gentleman is probably a member of the Neapolitan aristocracy and is portrayed with a rather stern expression.
He wears a long jacket, known in Italian as giamberga, close-fitting at the waist and wider towards the knees, which was in vogue in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Beneath this his petticoat, or sottabito, also known as giamberghino or gilet, is made of a precious brocaded fabric decorated with stylised and abstract floral motifs, matching the upturned sleeves of the outer jacket. These refined and very expensive fabrics were made on draw looms mainly in France from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Later, when Charles of Bourbon brought French craftsmen to Naples, they began to be produced by Neapolitan weavers. The man also wears a curly wig and a sword at his hip, while a hat lies on the table beside him. Cream-coloured leather gloves complete his elegant outfit. These gloves would probably have been saturated with perfume to overpower the strong smell of the solutions used to preserve leather: Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589) began the fashion for perfumed gloves at the French Court, introducing techniques that were later used in Italy.
As the Neapolitan biographer Bernardo De Dominici points out, Solimena's pictorial style changed dramatically after 1690, assuming greater naturalism and classicism. After the death of Luca Giordano in 1705 Solimena became the most sought-after artist in Naples, and most of his portraits date from after the 1730s. This portrait dates from the artist's mature period, around 1734-1735. The same sitter, but apparently a few years older, is known from a second portrait (dated around 1740) that entered the Robilant+Voena gallery’ in London in 2003. In this second canvas our gentleman has a more good-natured and relaxed expression and is shown holding a letter in his right hand instead of gloves. The Compton Verney painting was formerly in the collection of American automobile magnate Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.
Francesco Solimena Portrait of a Foreign Diplomat: Francesco Solimena 1734–1735 © Compton Verney