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Portrait of his brother’s family

Licinio Bernardino

(Venice 1485 - after 1549)

First mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in 1613, this painting contains an inscription describing the subject and bearing the signature of Bernardino Licinio. The persons depicted are Arrigo, the painter’s brother, his wife Agnese and their seven children. The work is among the most representative of Licinio’s oeuvre; as he often painted group portraits, the artist was a prominent figure in the genre of ‘conversation pieces’, that is, scenes of families or groups of friends shown in informal and domestic contexts. The Borghese portrait dates to the mid-1530s.

Object details

1535 ca.
oil on canvas
cm 107 x 163

19th-century frame, with lotus leaf and palmette frieze, 127 x 184.5 x 7 cm


Collection of Scipione Borghese, 1613; Inv. 1693, room V, no. 37; Inv. 1790, Inventario Fidecomissario Borghese, 1833, p. 9, no. 8. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1983-1984 Londra, Royal Accademy of Arts
  • 1986, San Pietroburgo, Hermitage
  • 2003-2004 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2004 Cremona, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 2015 Venezia, Fondazione Prada;
  • 2015-2016 Roma, Palazzo Altemps
  • 2017 Roma, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1947 Carlo Matteucci
  • 1983 Soprintendenza/ Conti
  • 1996 Carlo Ceccotti (frame)
  • 2015 Christian Seghetta (restauro completo)


Of uncertain provenance, this painting formed part of the picture gallery of Cardinal Scipione Borghese at an early date, as we know from its mention in the poem composed by Scipione Francucci on the collection in 1613 (st. 406-428).

The work appears in the Borghese inventories beginning with that of the late 17th century. It contains a lengthy inscription with the signature of the painter Bernardino Licinio: ‘Exprimit hic fratem tota cum gente Lycinus et vitam his forma prorogat arte sibi. B. lycinii opus’. This information allows us to identify the subject as a portrait of his brother with his family as well as the commemorative intention of the representation.

Hailing from a family originally from the area of Bergamo, Bernardino Licinio was probably born in Venice in the mid-1480s (Bortolotti 2005, p. 80); it was in this city that he had his workshop. The Borghese canvas is one of the best known works of his oeuvre. Here he portrays his older brother Arrigo, who was also a painter, together with his wife Agnese and their seven children (the identification of the figures was first made by Ludwig 1903, p. 53). The smallest of the offspring are grouped around their mother in the foreground, while Arrigo and his sons Camillo and Fabio stand behind Agnese. On the right, Fabio holds a model of the Belvedere Torso, alluding to his trade of goldsmith and engraver. The artist paid careful attention to the representation of the features of each of the figures, who gaze in different directions; the boy with the red hat on the left is the only one who looks at the observer.

Licinio often painted family and group portraits. In addition to the work in question, we should mention the Sculptor with Five Students (Alnwick Castle, collection of the Duke of Northumberland) and another Family Portrait (Hampton Court, Royal Collection). The artist played an important role in the context of so-called ‘conversation pieces’, a genre of painting focusing on groups of family members or friends depicted in informal situations, usually in domestic or rural settings (Cocchiara 2017, p. 290). In the work in question, Agnese dominates the scene: in her central position she represents the visual point of reference of the painting, a motif which alludes symbolically to her pivotal role in the family.

Here Licinio shows the influence of the portraiture of Titian and Palma Vecchio. At the same time, the artist reveals his personal talent as a chronicler, specifically his ability to capture the markedly bourgeois milieu to which he himself belonged. Devoid of bombast and ostentation, his style is in many respects quite close to the painting of the Lombard school (Bayer 2004, p. 147).

For centuries scholars were prevented from gaining familiarity with the life and works of Licinio due to a misunderstanding caused by Vasari: on the one hand, the biographer seems to have completely ignored the presence of this painter in the Venetian context of that era, while on the other he confused Giovanni Antonio Licinio with Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis, identifying the former as Pordenone. The error was only rectified at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the research of Gustav Ludwig (1903).

With regard to the dating of the Borghese canvas, critics agree that it was executed in the mid-1530s, based on comparisons with other female portraits of the same period (Bortolotti 2005, p. 83; Momesso 2009, p. 58; Gasparotto 2015, p. 243; Cocchiara 2017).

Pier Ludovico Puddu

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