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Self-portrait as a Young Man

Bernini Gian Lorenzo

(Naples 1598 - Rome 1680)

This work is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Self-portrait at the age of roughly 25; it is believed to be one of the artist’s first attempts at painting. Critics have proposed that it may have been executed at about the same time as the famous marble David, which Scipione Borghese commissioned, given the tense gaze which characterises the face in the Biblical hero, an expression which Bernini studied on himself. Together with the Self-portrait at a Mature Age and the Portrait of a Boy – also held by the Galleria – this canvas forms part of the core of the most important works which attest to Bernini’s activity as a painter.

Object details

c. 1623
oil on canvas
39 x 31 cm

17th-century frame, black with wave-like contours, gilded internal fillet with lotus leaf motifs, 72.5 x 64.5 x 8.5 cm


Purchased by Italian state from collection of Alvise De Ruggieri, 1919.

  • 1922 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti
  • 1930 Roma
  • 1954 Napoli, Palazzo Reale
  • 1981 Città del Vaticano, Braccio di Carlo Magno
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
  • 1998 Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 1998-1999 Milano, Palazzo Reale
  • 1999 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2006 Roma, Castel Sant’Angelo
  • 2007 Roma, Palazzo Barberini
  • 2008-2009 Los Angeles, J.P. Getty Museum; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada
  • 2013 Lens, Louvre-Lens
  • 2014-2015 Lipsia, Museum der Bildenden Künste
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1936 Carlo Matteucci
  • 1963 Alvaro Esposti
  • 1996 Paola Tollo
  • 2009 Laboratorio della Soprintendenza


This painting comes from the collection of Alvise De Ruggeri. The Galleria Borghese purchased it in 1919 as a work by Andrea Sacchi. Yet as early as 1908 D’Achiardi had proposed an attribution to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which was accepted by Corrado Ricci when the work entered the Collection and which critics since have supported, with rare exceptions. Scholars have dated the painting to around 1623, when the artist was 25 years old. It is referred to as the Self-portrait as a Young Man to distinguish it from another painting he made of himself, the Self-portrait at a Mature Age, which likewise forms part of the Borghese Collection (inv. no. 545). The dating of the canvas was proposed by Luigi Grassi, both because of its similarities to the David with the Head of Goliath in Palazzo Barberini and to the fact that the portrayed subject could well be 25 years old, which was Bernini’s age at that time. Critics have generally accepted Grassi’s thesis. (For a summary of the proposed attributions and chronologies, see Petrucci 2006, pp. 310-311; Montanari 2007, pp. 88-89). An engraving with the image of the artist, which was in circulation in about 1622, offers a useful comparison, even though his features are not as carefully depicted as in the painting: while his hair is shorter, it is equally wavy, and Bernini wears the same moustache and mouche below the lower lip as in the Borghese painting (Herrmann Fiore 1992, p. 38; Petrucci 2006; Montanari 2007).

As in other portraits by him, such as the above-mentioned Self-portrait at a Mature Age and the Portrait of a Boy (inv. no. 555), here Bernini depicts himself against a greenish backdrop. The lower portion of the painting, at the level of the collar and the shoulders, seems to have been only sketched, as if devoid of descriptive interest. The face was executed with touches of pure colour without the use of linear contours, in line with a macchia painting, a technique that contrasts light and dark tones (see Petrucci 2006). The use of dense colouring indicates that Bernini aimed for a compact, volumetric rendering of his face, a solidity that suited a sculptor’s inclination in his first attempts as a painter (Herrmann Fiore 1992; Martinelli 2003, pp. 23-24).

Critics have often commented on the tense and questioning gaze, defined by some as almost aggressive. This was probably the result of a study of expressions conducted by the artist on himself in preparation for defining the face of the famous marble David (inv. no. LXXVII), which our sources identify as a representation of Bernini himself. The sculpture was originally commissioned by Cardinal Montalto but then taken over by Scipione Borghese. The work in fact dates to 1623-24 and shows a close connection to the Self-portrait as a Young Man (Herrmann Fiore 1992; Petrucci 2006; Montanari 2007).

In light of both its style and its early date, critics believe that the canvas represents one of Bernini’s first attempts at painting. The work is in fact considered the archetype of a series of portraits and self-portraits executed by the artist, as well as a standard of comparison for others that may be attributed to him in the future (Montanari 2007). 

The painting has been set in relation to two other drawings of Bernini self-portraits, one held at the British Museum in London (Grassi 1962 ) and the other at Kupferstichkabinett in Düsseldorf (Kruft, Larsson 1968, p. 130; see also Herrmann Fiore 1992).


Pier Ludovico Puddu

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  • T. Montanari, Il colore del marmo. I busti di Bernini tra scultura e pittura. Ritratto e storia, funzione e stile (1610-1638), in I marmi vivi. Bernini e la nascita del ritratto barocco, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, 2009), a cura di A. Bacchi et alii, Firenze 2009, p. 104;
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