The portrait, perhaps commissioned directly by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, is mentioned in the 1833 Fidei-commissum inventory with the erroneous attribution to Caravaggio, later attributed by critics to Ottavio Leoni and Marcello Provenzale.
The work depicts a man in a three quarter pose, half-bust, whose face emerges from the dark background enhanced by a white ruff and illuminated by a pale light. The man’s identity, in the past thought to be the mosaicist from Cento, Marcello Provenzale, still remains in the shadows.
18th century frame decorated with lotus and acanthus leaves, 88.5 x 72 x 6.5 cm
Rome, Borghese Collection, 1833 (Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 13); purchased by the Italian State, 1902.
This painting is first mentioned as part of the Borghese Collection in the fideicommissum listing of 1833, described in the Hall of Sacred and Profane Love as “Portrait by Michel’Angelo da Caravaggio,” an attribution that was embraced by Giovanni Piancastelli (1891) in his manuscript catalogue of the Museo Borghese. In 1893 Adolfo Venturi rejected this attribution to Caravaggio and ascribed the canvas to Antonio Balestra, a name later discarded by Roberto Longhi (1928), who once again placed the painting in the Roman sphere and dated it around 1620 circa.
In 1955, after having identified the subject thanks to two works by Ottavio Leoni, Paola della Pergola published the work as Self Portrait by Marcello Provenzale da Cento (1955, p. 63, no. 108) seeing in it the same “contained, smooth” hand as the Portrait of Pope Paul V (inv. 495) produced by the mosaicist from Cento in 1621. This assessment, embraced by Bernardina Sani in 2005, was questioned by Camilla Fiore (2010) and recently rejected by Yuri Primarosa (2017), who in his monograph on Ottavio Leoni ruled out an association with the Roman portrait artist.
This is a half-length portrait of a man in three-quarter view whose face, set off by a white ruff and lit by a pale light, stands out against the dark background. As mentioned before, the man portrayed was identified by Paola della Pergola as the well-known mosaicist of the Borghese family, whose features were recognised thanks to a drawing (Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana, vol. H.017) and an engraving (Rome, Gabinetto Nazionale della Grafica, inv. F.C. 53031) by Ottavio Leoni, to whom the scholar had at first tentatively ascribed the painting, later discarding his name in favour of the artist from Cento.