Domenico's Fetti's Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music has confounded attempts to identify its sitter and perplexed viewers with its unexplained narrative. The foreground presents a seated man who glances up from the page in his left hand. At the lower right corner of the canvas, two small figures emerge from a doorway. The first of these men points to the sitter, while the other puts a single finger to his lips, his head turned right to address an unseen presence beyond the frame. With this gesture, he hushes both his fictive companion and the viewer.
This essay re-examines both the identity of Fetti's sitter and, more importantly, the role of these painted intruders. I argue that the marginal figure's gesture of silence serves to thematize visual art's always fraught relationship with sound. Further, I propose that early modern viewers would have associated this gesture with admonitions to discretion and secrecy. This novel rumination on silence and secrets would have proved ideal for the representation of a new and socially liminal class of musical theatre composers and performers at the Mantuan court that Fetti served.