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Portrait of Philip I of Castile

Sittow Michael

Reval 1468/69 -1525

This painting from the estate of Olimpia Aldobrandini depicts Philip I of Castile. It entered the Borghese Collection no later than 1650. Traditionally attributed to Bernard van Orley, critics recently ascribed it to Michael Sittow, the Estonian painter active mostly at several Habsburg courts who is considered one of the most important artists of the Flemish school.

The work depicts the Habsburg ruler dressed as a knight as he holds the hilt of a sword and displays the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece on his chest. Characterised by a central pendant in the form of a sheepskin – which alludes to the ‘fleece’ that gave the fraternity its name – the badge was the symbol of the knightly order created by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in 1431. The subject of the portrait further holds a purple carnation, perhaps an allusion to his marriage to Joanna the Mad. He also wears a refined headpiece, embellished with a large, round medal bearing the motto ‘MEMENTO MEI O MATER DEI’ and showing the Madonna and Child.

Object details

oil on poplar panel
41 x 22 cm

Salvator Rosa, 52 x 32.5 x 5.4 cm


Rome, collection of Olimpia Aldobrandini senior, 1626 (Della Pergola 1959); Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650); Inv. Olimpia Aldobrandini 1682 (Della Pergola 1959); Inv. 1693, room V, no. 72 (Della Pergola 1959; corrected to room V, no. 305 in Della Pergola 1964); Inv. 1765, p. 38; Inv. 1790, room VI, no. 13; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 23. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.


Sul medaglione appuntato sul berretto: "O.MATER.DEI.ME.MENTO.MEI"

  • 1999-2000 Genova, Palazzo Ducale;
  • 2000 La Coruna, Palacio Municipal de Exposiciones Kiosco Alfonso;
  • 2009-10 Torino, Reggia di Venaria Reale;
  • 2014 Roma, Museo dell'Ara Pacis.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1903 Luigi Bartolucci (pest control)
  • 1947 Carlo Matteucci
  • 1963-64 Alvaro Esposti
  • 1999 Laura Ferretti


A painting depicting a man of the Order of the Golden Fleece is mentioned in two inventories of the Aldobrandini possessions. The first dates to 1626 and reads, ‘A portrait of a man who wears the Golden Fleece in a small work by Alberto Duro, no. 189’ (see Della Pergola 1959); the second, meanwhile, from 1682, lists ‘a work of a portrait of a man who holds the Golden Fleece, by Alberto Duri, three spans high’. It is evident, then, that the panel came into the collection of the Casino of Porta Pinciana from the estate of the elder Olimpia Aldobrandini, after passing though possession of her granddaughter of the same name, the wife of Paolo Borghese. The work was viewed by Iacomo Manilli, the self-styled ‘keeper of the household’ at the Casino (Manilli 1650), who described it as a portrait of ‘Philip III, King of Spain’. Although they did not repeat this erroneous description, the compilers of later Borghese inventories likewise failed to precisely identify the subject of the work, describing him generically as a ‘youth’ (Inv. 1693) or a ‘prince’ (Inv. 1765). Similarly, for decades many critics persisted in mistaking the knight for Charles V of Spain (Morelli 1892; A. Venturi 1893; Longhi 1928; De Rinaldis 1928 and 1939; Von Baldass 1944; Della Pergola 1959; Besta 1999; Herrmann Fiore 2006). Only a handful of scholars rightly identified him as Philip the Handsome (Lafenestre 1905; Van Puyvelde 1950; Herrmann Fiore 2011).

The debate over the name of the artist has likewise been characterised by a great variety of opinions. While initial attributions were made to Albrecht Dürer (Inv. 1626; Inv. 1682) and Luca di Leida (Inv. 1693; Inv. 1765; Inv. Fid. 1833; Piancastelli 1891), Adolfo Venturi (1893) rejected both these names in favour of that of Bernhard Strigel. Although Roberto Longhi (1928) was not persuaded by this idea, it received the support of Aldo de Rinaldis (1928), who noted that the Portrait of Man at the Pinacoteca in Naples – which he attributed to Bernard van Orley – had much in common with the Borghese panel. For her part, Letizia Arbeteta Mira also agreed with Venturi’s thesis (in El arte de la plata 2000). Meanwhile, other scholars took an attribution to Van Orley into consideration, including Ludwig von Baldass (1944) – although he was more inclined to judge the work as the anonymous product of his workshop – and Paola della Pergola (1959), who took up her colleague’s suggestion of a lost prototype from which many versions derived (Von Baldass 1944). In this context, Della Pergola listed a series of works quite close to the Borghese panel, including one held in a private collection in Vienna.

Reassessing her initial attribution to Van Orley (Herrmann Fiore 2006), in 2011 Kristina Herrmann Fiore proposed the name of Michael Sittow, the Estonian painter active at the courts of Isabella of Castile, Philip the Handsome and Archduchess Margaret of Austria. Contemporaries considered Michael as one of the most important painters of the Flemish school. In fact, a first hesitant attribution to Sittow had already been made by Jazeps Trizna in 1976, who, however, believed the work to be by one of his followers. This idea was taken up by Gillon (in Reyes y Mecenas 1992) and taken into consideration in 2001 by Herrmann Fiore. On the occasion of the Cavalieri exhibition in Turin, this scholar indeed suggested recognising the Borghese version as an autograph work by the Estonian painter. At the same time, she proposed that the portrait may derive from an older original, which would also have provided the model for a similar painting in the cathedral of Saint Sauveur in Bruges. This last-named work is slightly larger than the panel in question and contains a plaque as a tribute to ‘Philip the Handsome, born in that city’ (Devliegher 1979): this detail provides further confirmation of the identity of the portrayed subject.

Regarding the dating of the work, Herrmann Fiore (2011) proposed that the lost prototype which she hypothesised would probably have been executed in roughly 1496, the year of Philip the Handsome’s marriage to Joanna the Mad, alluded to by the small purple carnation shown in the lower portion of the work. On this basis, the scholar dated the panel in question to 1505-06. This was the period in which the painter was in the service of the Habsburg ruler: according to Herrmann Fiore, Sittow executed a second version of the portrait, without, however, depicting Philip at his actual age. This was a typical practice in royal portraiture, which aimed to pass down to posterity the image of sovereigns as young persons, even when replicas were made at later dates (Herrmann Fiore 2011).

The meaning of the flower shown in Philip’s hands is also open to interpretation. As we have seen, Hermann Fiore (2011) proposed that it alludes to his marriage, in keeping with other ‘engagement paintings’, such as Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library) or that of Maximilian I by Joss van Cleve (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). A different hypothesis is that the flower alludes to the mystery of the incarnation of the Virgin Mary: the Latin root of carnation is in fact carnis (‘flesh’). This view would indeed account for the presence of the Virgin and Child on the medal on Philip’s hat, the inscription of which invokes Mary as his protector (‘MEMENTO MEI O MATER DEI’). The purple colour of the carnation, furthermore, seems to refer to the mystery of the death and passion of Jesus Christ: according to an ancient tradition, the flower came into being from a tear shed by Mary during the Calvary. For this reason, many artists included it in their works to symbolise the suffering of the Mother of Man and, indirectly, her undying faith in God.


Antonio Iommelli

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  • X. Barbier de Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Rome 1870, p. 363;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 578;
  • G. Morelli, Italian Painters. The Borghese and Doria Pamphili Galleries, London 1892, p. 246;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 146;
  • G. Lafenestre, E. Richtenberger, La peinture en Europe. Rome. Les Musées, les Collections particulières, les Palais, Paris 1905, p. 56;
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  • P. Della Pergola, Gli Inventari Aldobrandini: l’Inventario del 1682 (II), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXI, 1963, p. 84; P. della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (II), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXVIII, 1964, p. 465;
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  • L. Arbeteta Mira, in El arte de la plata y de las joyas en la Espana de Carlos V, catalogo della mostra (La Coruna, Palacio Municipal de Esposiciones, 2000), a cura di F.A. Martín García, J. Saenz de Miera, Madrid 2000, p. 256, n. 116;
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  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Cavalieri. Dai templari a Napoleone. Storie di crociati, soldati, cortigiani, catalogo della mostra (Torino, Reggia di Venaria Reale, 2009-10), a cura di A. Barbero, A. Merlotti, Verona 2009, pp. 298-300;
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