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Portrait of a youth

Fontana Lavinia

(Bologna 1552 - Rome 1614)

The drawing, completed in tempera, was probably purchased by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. One of the Bolognese painter’s many admirers, he had two other paintings by her: Minerva Dressing (inv. 7) and Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (inv. 437). The work, signed and dated, was painted in Rome in 1606 and is the portrait of a young man who, with his back to us, turns towards the observer with a lively look, constituting one of the few documents of Lavinia Fontana’s use of this technique.

Object details

cm 47,5 x 35,5

Salvator Rosa, 61 x 49.5 x 5 cm



(?) Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650); Inv. 1700, room IV, no. 39; Inv. 1790, room VIII, no. 35; Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 20; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

In basso a destra "LAVIN.A FON.A F. 1606".
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni;
  • 2007 Washington, National Museum of Women in the Arts;
  • 2019-2020 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado;
  • 2020-2021 Milano, Palazzo Reale.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1960-1961 Renato Massi (restauro della cornice).


This refined portrait was made by Lavinia Fontana in 1606 in Rome. In all likelihood, it became part of the Borghese Collection through Cardinal Scipione, who was known in his day as one of the greatest admirers of the Bolognese artist; indeed in 1613 he commissioned her to paint Minerva Dressing (inv. no. 7). From 1650, this Portrait of a Youth is mentioned as being held at the Casino di Porta Pinciana, where it was seen by Iacomo Manilli, who described it as ‘the head of the Redeemer’. For his part, Adolfo Venturi (1893) believed the work was a copy that Fontana made of a drawing by a member of the Carracci family, which in turn derived from an original by Correggio. In 1955, Paola della Pergola labelled the work a preparatory study executed ex novo by Fontana; the scholar indeed used this description when she published the work in the catalogue of paintings of the Galleria Borghese. In 1984, Angela Ghirardi (see also Ghirardi 2019) suggested that the drawing was actually a preparatory sketch for one of the figures portrayed in the background of the lost altarpiece for the basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, which Lavinia painted and which we know today thanks to an engraving by Jacques Callot. For her part, Maria Teresa Cantaro (1989) soon after published a monograph on Fontana, in which she noted several similarities with the head of St John in the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (formerly in the collection of the Duke of Leuchtenberg).

The drawing forms part of Fontana’s production of portraits, a genre that enhanced her reputation both in Bologna and Rome. She experimented with techniques which were strongly influenced by Raphael (Longhi 1928), while also absorbing the naturalism of the Carracci (Ghirardi 1984), which allowed her to instil vivacity in her subjects, as in this case. Indeed, the face of the youth, framed by abundant, flowing hair, is captured while he turns toward the observer, with whom he engages in dialogue through his eyes.

  Antonio Iommelli

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 112;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 172;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 75;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 185;
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’Arte Italiana, IX, Roma 1933, IX, 6, p. 694;
  • B. Galli, Lavinia Fontana Pittrice, Imola 1940, p. 46;
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 57:
  • P. della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 34;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 36, n. 46;
  • R. Longhi, Saggi e ricerche 1925-28. Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. La Galleria Borghese, Firenze 1967, pp. 336-337;
  • A. Ghirardi, Una pittrice bolognese nella Roma di primo Seicento, in “Il Carrobbio”, X, 1984, p. 155;
  • Pittura bolognese del ‘500, a cura di V. Fortunati Pierantonio, II, Bologna 1986, p. 737;
  • M.T. Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana bolognese: “pittora singolare” 1552-1614, Milano 1989, pp. 51, 212-213;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, scheda in Invisibilia. Rivedere i capolavori. Vedere i progetti, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 1992), a cura di M. E. Tittoni, S. Guarino, Roma 1992, pp. 28-29;
  • V. Fortunati, Fontana, Lavinia, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, XLVIII, 1997, ad vocem;
  • I. Bianchi, scheda in Lavinia Fontana of Bologna: 1552 – 1614, catalogo della mostra (Washington, DC, National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1998), a cura di V. Fortunati Milano 1998, p. 104, n. 28;
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 384;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 31;
  • I. Graziani, scheda in Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque. Court, commerce and convent, catalogo della mostra (Washington, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2007), a cura di V. Fortunati, J. Pomeroy, C. Strinati, Milano 2007, p. 162, n. 31.
  • A. Ghirardi, scheda in A tale of two women painters. Sofonisba Anguissola. Lavinia Fontana, catalogo della mostra (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2019-2020), a cura di L. Ruiz Gómez, Madrid 2019, pp. 186-187.
  • S. Biancani, scheda in Le Signore del Barocco. Storie di donne tra ’500 e ’600, catalogo della mostra (Milano, Palazzo Reale, 2021), Milano 2021, p. 299;