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Portrait of Lodovico Castelvetro

Unknown, 17th century

This painting was made by a seventeenth-century artist who has yet to be identified, although Venturi traced him to the Florentine milieu. It was listed in the Borghese Collection for the first time in 1833.

Although the sitter was identified in the twentieth century as Giulio Clovio, he is in all probability instead Lodovico Castelvetro, a renowned sixteenth-century man of letters.

It is very likely that the painting is part of a series that included four other portraits of illustrious men, all of which are also in storage.

Object details

17th century
oil on panel
24x18 cm.

Roma, Collezione Borghese (cited for the first time in the Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, p. 25). Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.


It is unknown when this painting entered the Borghese Collection. It appears for the first time in the fideicommissary inventory of 1833, in which it is listed as displayed in the Sala delle Veneri of Palazzo Borghese. The work was later moved to various places in that residence, until it was recorded by Adolfo Venturi (1893) in Room X of the villa.

It is possible that this portrait and four others in the collection – Francesco Guicciardini (inv. 454), Pier Soderini (inv. 523), a Pope (inv. 447, probably Pius III), and Michele di Lando (inv. 449) – are part of a series of illustrious men. These paintings all have the same dimensions (with the exception of the one of Pier Soderini, which is slightly larger) and many stylistic similarities, and they were always listed together (with the exception of the one of Pier Soderini) in both the palazzo and the villa. The story of the latter portrait follows a different track. In 1833, it was, unlike the others, displayed in the Gabinetto of the palazzo and attributed to a painter from the school of Paolo Veronese (Piancastelli, 1891). Then, in 1893, Venturi traced it to the Florentine milieu and reported it in Room XI of the villa. Therefore, considering that the painter was from the same school as the one who might have made the other four portraits and the dimensions are very similar, it seems plausible that the portrait of Soderini might also be part of the presumed series, even though it was never displayed with the others.

The person who painted the portrait remains unknown. The artist is identified in the fideicommissary inventory of 1833 and by Venturi (1893) as a modest seventeenth-century painter from the Florentine school. He was clearly a very mediocre painter, who might have  painted all five portraits based on older and more prestigious models.

Paola della Pergola (1955) proposed that the sitter is Giulio Clovio, based on comparison with contemporary portraits of the famous Croatian miniaturist who worked for the Farnese family – examples including the ones by El Greco (1571, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte) and Sofonisba Anguissola (1570/80 now in the Zeri collection) – and in particular the engraving by Benedetto Eredi published by Vasari and included in the Series of Illustrious Men of 1772.

However, the resemblance of the sitter to contemporary, and later, portraits of Giulio Clovio is highly debatable. A more pertinent and convincing comparison seems to be with portraits of Lodovico Castelvetro. One example being an eighteenth-century engraving by Francesco Zucchi (included in the biography of the painter by Muratori), likely based on an older portrait of the man of letters from Modena, which is iconographically very similar to the present work.

Lodovico Castelvetro was a prominent figure in Renaissance literature. He was a member of the Accademia degli Intronati in Siena, where he met some of the leading figures of the time, including Alessandro Piccolomini. After his period in Tuscany, he returned to Modena, where he spent most of his life and co-founded, with Grillenzoni, the Accademia Modenese. Castelvetro was one of the greatest scholars of Aristotelian philosophy, in particular the Poetics. His philosophical texts attest to his deep knowledge of the writings (in particular De Pictura) and thought of Leon Battista Alberti, as well as Benedetto Varchi and Ludovico Dolce. His theory of imitation tends to favour the concrete over the ideal. A preference that is reflected in his conviction that portraiture is the most important painting genre and in the contest between Titian and Michelangelo for the title of best painter (Lazzari, 2020). Interest in Lodovico Castelvetro’s writings extended beyond the sixteenth century, continuing into the seventeenth century as well. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Bellori cited him in the ‘L’idea del pittore’ of Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni (1672), even though he disagreed with his theories about art: ‘It appears that Aristotle, on Tragedy, was unjustly criticized by Castelvetro, who maintains that the virtue of painting is not in creating a beautiful and perfect image, but in resembling the natural, either beautiful or deformed, for an excess of beauty lessens the likeness. This argument of Castelvetro is limited to icastic painters and portraitists who keep to no Idea and are subject to the ugliness of the face and body, unable to add beauty or correct natural deformities without violating the likeness. Otherwise the painting would be more beautiful and less accurate.’The writer’s life was upended by a literary argument that broke out in 1533 with Annibal Caro that resulted in the latter denouncing the former to the Holy Office and Castelvetro’s condemnation for heresy in 1560 (Muratori, 1727; Cantù, 1874). The cultural importance of the man of letters from Modena would therefore justify his inclusion in a series of portraits of illustrious men.

The identification of the sitter as Lodovico Castelvetro might also help with that of the ‘portrait of a Pope’, which is also in all probability part of the series and still remains unidentified. If there is indeed a link between the various paintings, it seems justified to imagine that, considering the man of letters from Modena had close ties for part of his life with the Piccolomini, the pope in the portrait might have belonged to just that family. Excluding Pius II right off for purely iconographic reasons, it would seem that, including and especially based on comparison with other portraits (Gemaldegalerie, Vienna), the sitter could be Pius III.

It is still not possible to establish with certainty which iconographic model the unknown painter might have used for the portrait of Lodovico Castelvetro. We can imagine, however, that he had seen one of the numerous direct and indirect copies that had been made over the centuries of Paolo Giovio’s collection of portraits of illustrious men, which he displayed in his museum. Giovio owned a large number of portraits of popes, men of letters, men-at-arms, kings, emperors and other illustrious figures. And, right from the beginning, the most important Italian and even foreign lords sent their favourite artists to copy his vast collection. The documented cases include Cristofano di Papi dell’Altissimo and Bernardino Campi, who were sent to Como by, respectively, Cosimo I Medici and Ippolita Gonzaga (daughter of the viceroy of Sicily, Ferrante I Gonzaga), as well as various painters in the service of Ferdinand, duke of Austria (Minonzio, 2007).

We also have no clues about the provenance of the painting. It is possible that it entered the collection as part of an acquisition and it probably belonged to a middle-class collector, who might have purchased, rather than commissioned, it from a mediocre artist or a workshop active in the seventeenth century. It was not rare, in fact, to find poor quality copies of much more illustrious works in seventeenth century Rome, just as it was fairly common for people from the middle classes to own paintings. We know that there were paintings on the market that were sold for as little as one scudo and also that the market for copies was extremely prolific and profitable (Cavazzini, 2010).

Camilla Iacometti 

  • G. P. Bellori, Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni, Roma 1672, p. 8.
  • L.A. Muratori, Opere varie critiche di Lodovico Castelvetro con la vita dell’autore, Berna 1727.
  • G. Vasari, Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, Firenze 1793, p. 344.
  • C. Cantù, Italiani illustri ritratti da Cesare Cantù, vol. III, Milano 1874, pp. 279-310.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese 1891, p. 89.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 208.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. La Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 221.
  • P. Della Pergola, Galleria Borghese. I dipinti, 1, Roma 1955, pp. 144, n.258.
  • T. Casini, Ritratti parlanti: collezionismo e biografie illustrate nei secoli XVI e XVII, Firenze 2004.
  • F. Minonzio, Il Museo di Giovio e la Galleria degli uomini illustri, in Testi, immagini e filologia nel XVI secolo, a cura di E. Carrara, S. Ginzburg, Pisa 2007, pp. 77-146.
  • P. Cavazzini, Il mercato delle copie nella Roma di primo Seicento, in La Copia. Storia del gusto e della conservazione, a cura di C. Mazzarelli, San Casciano 2010, pp. 257-270.
  • N. Cannata, Giorgio Vasari, Paolo Giovio, Portrait Collections and the Rhetorics of Images, in Giorgio Vasari and the birth of the museum, a cura di A. Cecchi, M.W. Gahatan, Farnham 2014, pp. 67-79.
  • A. Lazzarini, Tra Aristotele e Alberti. Poesia e arti figurative nella poetica di Lodovico Castelvetro, in “Giornale storico della letteratura italiana”, vol. CXCVII, a. CXXXVII, fasc. 657, Torino 2020, pp. 101-120.