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Portrait of Petrarch

copy after Bonsignori Francesco

(Verona c. 1460 - Caldiero 1519)

The painting portrays the poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), whose figure is silhouetted in profile against the backdrop of a cloud-streaked sky. In the foreground, on a wooden cornice, appears his name: ‘Franciscus Petrarcha’. The painting is recorded in the Borghese collection starting with the 1693 inventory, described as being by an ‘uncertain’ artist, and it appears with the attribution to Holbein in later 18th- and 19th-century lists. The work is one of the many portrayals that confirm the 16th-century popularity of the poet, whose image became widespread through this iconography, as evidenced by the multiple copies known today. Probably derived from a lost prototype, attributed by some to Francesco Bonsignori, by others to Girolamo da Santacroce.

Object details

inizio XVI secolo
oil on canvas
cm 34 x 22,5

17th century (with carvings of acanthus leaves and rosettes on a black ground) 56.2 x 44.8 x 5 cm


Rome, Borghese Collection; Inv. 1693, St. VI, no. 336; Inv. 1790, St. X, no. 37; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

  • 2017 Roma, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1937 Carlo Matteucci
  • 2007-2008 Giantomassi e Zari s.n.c


In this portrait, the poet Francesco Petrarch is shown in profile, half-length, wearing a dark robe with a hood that leaves only his face uncovered. The figure is depicted behind a wooden cornice on which his name is written – allowing him to be clearly identified – and against the backdrop of a cloudy sky.

The painting, of unknown provenance, is documented in the Borghese collection starting with the 1693 inventory, where it is described as follows: ‘A painting of about a palm and a half in height with a portrait of a clothed Man with a Hood on his head with letters beneath saying franciscus Petrarcha in panel No. 522. Marked behind with gilt frame. Uncertain’.  In the subsequent list of 1790 and again in the fideicommissary list of 1833, the portrait is referred to as being by Holbein. At the end of the 19th century, Venturi (1893) assigned the small canvas to the school of Bellini, a reference that was generally accepted and subsequently endorsed by Longhi (1928) and Schmitt (1961, p. 134). A further specification was made by Berenson (1936; 1958), who put forward the name of Girolamo da Santacroce, a pupil of both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Della Pergola (1955) catalogued the painting as deriving from a prototype by Francesco Bonsignori in the National Gallery, London, stressing its similarity to a portrait in the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, drawing on the same source.

With the exception of Heinemann (1961), who put forward the name of Bernardino Licinio, subsequent critics have continued to waver between the names Francesco Bonsignori (Stefani 2000) and Girolamo da Santacroce; the latter was preferred by Stradiotti (1976), author of a reconstruction of the artist's life and oeuvre, as well as Reboldi (2011-2012) and Dal Pozzolo (2017).

The Borghese portrait – the genre of the portrait is an ancient one – is one of the many exemplars that confirm the popularity of the figure of the poet in the early 16th century, thanks especially to the Venetian scholar Pietro Bembo. In fact, at least a dozen copies deriving from the same prototype are known, distributed among museums and private collections (Heinemann, 1961; Dal Pozzolo, 2017).

Pier Ludovico Puddu 

  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 201;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, R. Galleria Borghese, Roma, 1928, p. 218;
  • B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of Renaissance. A list of the Principal Artist and their Works with an Index of Places, Oxford 1932, p. 509;
  • B. Berenson, Pitture italiane del Rinascimento: catalogo dei principali artisti e delle loro opere con un indice dei luoghi, Milano 1936, p. 437;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1951, p. 32;
  • P. Della Pergola, Galleria Borghese. I dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 108 n. 192;
  • B. Berenson, Pitture italiane del Rinascimento, London 1958, I, p. 161;
  • C. Gilbert, A Sarasota notebook, in “Arte Veneta”, XV, 1961, pp. 33, 37, nota 1;
  • F. Heinemann, Giovanni Bellini e i belliniani, Vicenza 1962, I, p. 224, V, p. 47;
  • P. Della Pergola, L’inventario Borghese del 1693 (II), in “Arte antica e moderna”, 1964, p. 450;
  • R. Stradiotti, Per un catalogo delle pitture di Girolamo da Santacroce, in “Atti dell’Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti”, CXXXIV, 1976, p. 586;
  • C. Stefani, in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 290, n. 12;
  • 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. 139;
  • S. Reboldi, I pittori da Santacroce: desunzioni pittoriche e grafiche, con un catalogo ragionato delle opere, tesi di laurea magistrale, Università degli studi di Verona, a.a. 2011-2012, p. 267, n. 56;
  • E.M. Dal Pozzolo, Labirinti del cuore. Giorgione e le stagioni del sentimento tra Venezia e Roma, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, 2017), a cura di E.M. Dal Pozzolo, Napoli 2017, pp. 206-207, cat, I 5.6.