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Self-portrait at a Mature Age

Bernini Gian Lorenzo

(Naples 1598 - Rome 1680)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Self-portrait at a Mature Age entered the Borghese Collection in 1911 thanks to a donation by Baron Otto Messinger, who hoped the painting would remain in Italy forever. It is known that a number of works in the baron’s possession came from the Chigi collection, yet to date we do not have certain information whether the work in question was among these. The attribution of the canvas to Bernini had been made before the Galleria purchased it; it has not been called into question since. On the other hand, various proposals have been put forth for the year of its execution. Judging from both the style and the age of the portrayed subject – roughly 40 – we can confidently date the Self-portrait to the second half of the 1630s. This is perhaps the most representative of Bernini’s self-portraits; its fame is in part due to the fact that it appeared on one of the banknotes of the Italian lira.


Object details

Inventory
545
Location
Date
c. 1635-1640
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 53x43
Frame

With floral ornaments and rosettes on black ground, 78.5 x 68 x 10 cm

Provenance

Donated by Baron Otto Messinger, 1911.

Exhibitions
  • 1911 Firenze, Palazzo Vecchio
  • 1930 Roma
  • 1954 San Paolo del Brasile
  • 1966 Stoccolma, Nationalmuseum
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
  • 1992 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti
  • 1998 Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 1999 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 1999-2000 Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 2007 Roma, Palazzo Barberini
  • 2013-2014 Budapest, Szépmúvészeti Múzeum
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1936 Augusto Cecconi Principi (cleaning)
  • 1996-1997 Emmebici (diagnostics); Paola Tollo (restoration); Carlo Ceccotti (frame)

Commentary

The painting came into the Borghese Collection through a donation made in 1911 by Baron Otto Messinger, who wished to donate it to the Museum as a token of his affection for Italy. Together with the Self-portrait as a Young Man and the Portrait of a Boy – also held by the Galleria (nos 554 and 555, respectively) – the Self-portrait at a Mature Age constitutes important evidence of the famous artist’s work as a painter.

In light of the fact that many works in the Messinger collection came from the Chigi family, some scholars have proposed that this Self-portrait was among these. Yet to date we lack documentary proof that this was the case.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, Pietro D’Achiardi (1908, pp. 378-380) upheld the attribution to Bernini, and subsequent critics have accepted his view. By contrast, scholars have been less unanimous on the question of the dating of the work.

Indeed proposals put forth by critics for the year of its execution have ranged from 1625 to 1655. D’Achiardi’s theory that it was painted in the 1620s has not persuaded later critics, given that the age shown by the subject does not correspond with those of other self-portraits of his from that decade. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, Martinelli (1959, p. 539) dated the painting to the 1650s, arguing that the gaunt, worn face betrayed the effects of the long illness that afflicted Bernini in that period.

Maurizio and Marcello Fagiolo Dell’Arco (1967, no. 71; see also Fagiolo Dell’Arco 2002, pp. 32-39) rather suggested dating the work to the mid-1630s. Both scholars in fact maintained that our canvas represented half of a double portrait which according to our sources formed part of Bernini’s oeuvre as painter. Depicting the artist together with a woman, probably Costanza Bonarelli, this work was painted before 1639, the year of Bernini’s marriage to Caterina Tezio. The double portrait was later divided into two, sometime between 1681 and 1706. While definitive proof for the Dell’Arco thesis is lacking, other scholars have been attracted to it: Kristina Hermmann Fiore (1992, p. 40) expressed her support in the wake of direct analysis of the canvas in question, which revealed a more pronounced fringe on its right side compared with the other three, compatible with a cut made on that edge.

Yet not all critics accept this idea. Both Francesco Petrucci and Tomaso Montanari have suggested a slightly later date, namely between the late 1630s and the mid-1640s. Petrucci (2006, pp. 320-321) in particular argued that the Self-portrait shows a man who is less sure of himself and less aggressive in comparison with those of his youth, indicative of the artist’s change of fortune and temporary period of inactivity at the beginning of the pontificate of Innocent X. For his part, Montanari (2007, pp. 94-95) believed that the double portrait with Bonarelli would have probably shown Bernini in profile, such that the pair were exchanging gazes. He further maintained that both the age of the artist – roughly 40 – and the style of the portrait supported dating the work to approximately 1638.

In Montanari’s view, the work in question shows that Bernini’s portraiture had evolved compared to the examples of the 1620s. The later painting revealed that the artist had by now freed himself of any obligations to other masters and had developed his own identity to the point that he was now able to use Renaissance portraiture as his model. The position of the depicted subject, with his head turned toward the viewer and his bust in profile, may have been intended as an allusion to Raphael’s Portrait of Bindo Altoviti (National Gallery, Washington).

We should note that the orientation of the subject toward the right of the painting is a feature that appears in other Self-portraits by Bernini from the 1630s (three currently held in Montpellier, the Prado Museum and the Uffizi Gallery, respectively, and one formerly belonging to the Ford collection), to which the work in question is certainly related. By contrast, in his more youthful self-representations Bernini faces the other way (Petrucci 2006).

The artist shows signs of ageing in this Self-portrait: his face is leaner, his hairline recedes slightly, his eyes begin to show dark circles, and a few strands of white hair are visible. The grey tints of the backdrop become less dark in the areas surrounding his head. His dark cape and white collar seem hurriedly executed, as in other of Bernini’s self-portraits: this detail tells us that the artist wished to concentrate mostly on the rendering of his face – his physiognomic features and expression. At the same time, the lighter spot under his right ear, which interrupts the uniformity of the shadow of his beard, may indicate that the painting was left unfinished, perhaps because of fatigue, or dissatisfaction with the development of the project (Petrucci 2006).

Nonetheless, the Self-portrait at a Mature Age is the culmination of Bernini’s representations of himself. The work became quite famous, in part because the image enjoyed broad diffusion through its appearance on Italy’s 50,000-lira banknotes. 

Pier Ludovico Puddu




Bibliography
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