Silence and secrets in Domenico Fetti's Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music


  • I would like to thank Tim McCall for his helpful reading of several versions of this essay. Tita Rosenthal offered her expertise on the costume of Fetti's sitter. Allie Terry drew my attention to the multiple associations of the gesture of silence. Pat Simons, Jill Pedersen, Celeste Brusati, and Nancy Troy offered feedback on an early oral version of this essay. Giancarlo Fiorenza provided indispensable bibliographic suggestions. Peter Mancall and the USC/Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute generously supported the workshop from which this essay sprang.


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.