A Portrait of Cardinal Camillo Borghese
(Guido Reni)


The least known sphere of Guido Reni’s activity is his portraiture. Stephen Pepper, in his 1984 monograph, could list with confidence among the artist’s autograph works only five portraits, but Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Reni’s principal biographer, had listed thirteen, only one of which, the portrait of Cardinal Spada (See fig. 1), is identified with certainty. Reni was reported to have disdained portraiture, but Malvasia’s list indicates that his activity was considerably greater than we know today . Pepper,therefore, believed that we are justified in considering certain new works to be candidates for inclusion in Reni’s oeuvre.

To begin with the known works, three are portraits of high ecclesiastics; Pope Gregory XV (See fig. 2), Cardinals Roberto Ubaldini (See fig. 3) and Bernardino Spada (See fig. 1), executed in date between 1622-1630; the other two are informal portraits, one said to be of Reni’s mother, and the other of another elderly lady. Not surprisingly, these latter two are much more uncertain as to identification than the ecclesiastical portraits, although there, too, considerable doubt existed regarding the identification of the papal portrait until Gregory’s features were recognised by several scholars. Pepper has dated the two portraits of ladies to around 1630, and consequently it appears that all of Reni’s portrait activity currently is known falls into a brief span of his career.

But in fact, if one widens the scope of inquiry to include Malvasia’s list, we know that several of the portraits must have been executed in the first decade of the seventeenth century. Among them would have been Reni’s portraits of Pope Clement VIII and Paul V, of Cardinals Borghese, Sfondrato and Sannesi, and the poet, G.B. Marino. At the other end of his career, Malvasia mentions a portrait of Cardinal Sacchetti, Papal Legate from 1637-40, and therefore probably painted at that time. Thus, Reni’s activity as a portraitist seems to span his entire career. It is the purpose of this catalogue entry to propose and outline additions to his activity, specifically from the early Roman period.

From Malvasia we know that Reni was engaged in portrait activity during his time in Rome. Further light is shed on this by a remark concerning an otherwise totally obscure Bolognese artist and portrait specialist, named Antonio Scalvati. Ugugieri-Azzolini, the Sienese writer, recounts that when Francesco Vanni arrived in Rome he made friends with Scalvati, under whose tutelage was to be found Guido Reni. Scalvati at this time was famous for his successful portrait of Clement VIII, who otherwise resisted having his portrait done. Vanni’s arrival in Rome can be pinned down to 1603. Hence, we can reconstruct the origin of Reni’s Roman portrait activity to this time, commencing in the very last years of Clement’s reign, in which Reni very likely received instruction from his country-man, Scalvati, in the then accepted manner of Roman ecclesiastical portraits. It was probably at this time that Reni made his own portraits of Clement VIII, Cardinals Paolo Emilio Sfondrato, his first Roman patron, and Cardinal Camillo Borghese, just prior to his elevation to the papacy as Paul V. It is this last work which we shall now consider in some detail.

The painting first came to light in 1985 and the attribution to Reni was first confirmed by Sir Denis Mahon, followed simultaneously by Dr. Stephen Pepper and Dr. Erich Schleier. The sitter was then misidentified by Pepper as Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Paul. This error, which was noted by several scholars, temporarily opened the door to some unjustified doubts regarding the attribution; and it of course also led to a mistake in dating.

In order to set matters straight one should first consider the portrait and then investigate the conditions which may have led to its commission.

One must begin with the observation that it is an extremely powerful work. Camillo fills the picture space impressing a powerful image upon the viewer’s mind. The light falling on the sitter’s faceemphasizes his features in an undramatic but nevertheless effective manner. He is represented in the act of ringing a small bell, which involves no great exertion, but conveys the idea of command and supports the impression formed by his steady outward gaze. He stands behind a table and in front of a chair that has as a finial the Borghese dragon. The drapery falling by Camillo’s side also serves to reinforce a sense of fimness, as does the unobtrusive highlighting, the dominant, standing posture, his severe, almost haughty expression, and slightly pursed, carmine lips. (See the colour plate detail). His image is carefully contrived to convey, above all, monumentality through a hieratic image, which, however, does not exclude the sense of a distinct personality.

It has been remarked that the composition is somewhat old fashioned. This is only partly true. To the extent that this is so, it can be explained by the fact that Reni was working within the accepted formulae of Roman high ecclesiastical portraiture. A parallel case could be that of Caravaggio’s portrait of Olaf de Wignacourt, in which this very unconventional artist had to work within set formulae.

Within the imposed conventions, Reni has introduced an element that is by no means conventional, and that is the colour. He has employed a spectrum of reds and suffused mauves which is beautifully tempered but at the same time creates an intensity through the saturation of the colours and the subtle contrast of varying reds. The highest keyed red is the beretta that Camillo wears. It is exactly the same tone of red as that of the plumed hat worn by David in Reni’s painting in the Louvre which is of a very similar date. Also very close in tone is the red used in Saints Peter and Paul (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera) of a comparable date with the portrait of Camillo. The lowest keyed colour in the spectrum is the purple-mauve of the cardinal’s garments where the drapery is cast in half tones, filling the range between the two. In Reni’s later portraits, especially the Cardinals Ubaldini ( fig. 3) and Spada ( fig. 1), analogous effects are achieved. The handling of the drapery also betrays Reni’s typical fluttering, zig-zagging brushstrokes, while the shot colour of the curtains again adopts a colour scheme particularly favoured by the artist. .

Finally, there is a specific pictorial effect that helps to establish the precise date of the painting. It has been observed by Nicholas Turner that there were connections with the Carracci, and others have orally remarked in a similar vein. For example, the hands display the soft modelling that one finds in Ludovico Carracci’s portraits. One might describe these effects as Correggesque in the generic sense, though the delicate blondness of the flesh tones would be considered quite typical of a later period of Reni’s painting. (See fig. 4). There is a very good reason for this, because in the summer of 1604 Reni returned to Bologna to paint the mural of Saint Benedict receiving the Gifts of the Peasants in the octagonal cloister of San Michele in Bosco. While there, he was in close touch with Ludovico and his followers. On the one hand, it is clear that Reni had a strong impact on them, but it is also the case that Ludovico influenced him. Evidence of this can be found in the Christ at the Column, painted in Rome in the autumn of 1604.

The fact that one of the three Carracci, albeit which one has not been specified, was suggested in 1985 as an alternative to Reni’s authorship, itself testifies to the very high quality of the painting. But if one examines the possible Carracci alternatives, it quickly becomes clear that none of them could really be the author of this painting. Annibale was in Rome during the entirety of Camillo’s tenure as cardinal, but there is no evideuce that he ever painted a portrait of a high ecclesiastic in Rome. If Annibale had painted such an important work, it would surely have been known and recorded by his great friend, the scholar writer, Msgr. G.B. Agucchi, nor would it have escaped the attention of the Roman biographer, G.P. Bellori. The hieratic character of this portrait does not fit Annibale’s known portraits, in which he emphasises contact between the viewer and the sitter and displays his acute insight into the latter’s psycho-logical outlook. Indeed the only portrait so far identified with Annibale in Rome is the highly expressive image of Agucchi himself, today in the City Art Gallery, York. Pepper believed that Annibale must be excluded from consideration for the portrait of Camillo.

More or less the same case can be made against Ludovico. Other than for one month during 1602, he was never present in Rome, and there is no record of his executing such a portrait. There is no evidence from the rest of his activity to indicate that this work is a plausible addition to his oeuvre. Finally, Agostino was in Rome briefly in the late 1590s and could only have painted such a work then. Further, there are two sheets of drawings, probably by him, in which Cardinal Camillo is represented in a seated position. Nevertheless, these drawings do not correspond closely to the composition of the portrait of Camillo, nor is the official character and hieratic bearing of the subject really any more in keeping with Agostino’s other known portraits than it is with those of the other Carracci. Although not as inventive as his brother in expressing psychological insight into his subject, he too sought this dimension in his portraits at the expense of its hieratic character.

This balance between representing a Prince of the Church, bearing the responsibilities of high office and the strong presence of an individual personality, is exactly characteristic of Reni’s portraits from life, as Sir Denis Mahon has recently noted in regard to Reni’s portrait of Cardinal Roberto Ubaldini (fig. 3): ‘. . . that of Reni’s own Cardinal Ubaldini where, although the presence of a Prince of the Church is powerfully insisted upon, the representation of an individual human being is not entirely excluded’. It seems that the Borghese portrait was the precursor of the Ubaldini portrait.

All of these stylistic features point to a date of 1604-5 when Reni had just returned to Rome and was executing commissions for Cardinals Sfondrato and Pietro Aldobrandini, Clement’s papal nephew. On 3 March 1605, Pope Clement VIII died, having reigned thirteen years, and this led to two stormy conclaves in a very short period of time. The French and Spanish parties were so divided that a schism was threatened. The first conclave convened on 14 March and after a protracted battle ended in the election of Alessandro de Medici on 1 April 1605. The resultant victory of the French party was short-lived, however, for Leo XI Medici died twenty-five days after his elevation. There followed an even more fractious contest, which resulted in a compromise candidate emerging, Camillo Borghese, who became Paul V on 16 May 1605.

In fact, Borghese, a man trained in canon law, had been carefully advanced during the entire period as a potential compromise between the rival factions, a role. However, it would not do for his personal character to be underrated and it is suggested here that his portrait was commissioned and executed in the period between March and May 1605, as part of an endeavour to make him better known and to display the candidate’s qualities, namely, his robust and youthful appearance and his commanding presence. At this time, Reni was executing The Crucifixion of St. Peter for Cardinal Aldobrandini, and the Christ at the Column and later the Saint Cecilia for Sfondrato. He had recently painted the portraits of Clement VIII and Cardinal Sfondrato. Under these circumstances, it would appear very likely that Reni would have been the choice of Camillo Borghese (or whoever advised him, for he himself was untutored in art) to produce at short notice a formal portrait to support his own impressive claim to be ‘papabile’.

Thus, Reni’s activity as portraitist was a significant part of his Roman activity under both Clement VIII and Paul V It probably began in Rome as early as 1603 with his training with Scalvati, and during the remaining years of Clement’s reign he painted portraits of the Pope, Sfondrato and G.B. Marino. For the Borghese, it would have begun with his portrait of Camillo and continued with his portraits of Camillo, after his election as Paul V, and of his cardinal nephew, Scipione, works mentioned by Malvasia. Finally, from Reni’s account book, we know that he painted the portrait of Cardinal Sannesi in 1609. For the present, this constitutes what can be reconstructed of Reni’s rather active portrait career in these years.

62 3/8 x 45 ¾ in. 158.4 x 116.2 cm.
Oil on canvas

A French newspaper cutting of c. 1940 on the stretcher indicates a French provenance.
Private Collection, Sweden;
Private Collection, Lugano 1985;
Matthiesen Gallery, 1993;
M. F. Collection.


C. C. Malvasia, La Felsina Pittrice, Bologna 1678, G.Zanotti (ed.) Bologna, 1841, II, p. 47.
N. Turner, review of the exh. ‘Around 1610: the Onset of the Baroque’, The Burlington Magazine, 127, 1985, p. 548.
Stephen Pepper, Guido Reni, L’Opera Completa, Milan, 1988, No. 8, p. 328, pl. 6.
Fifty Paintings. Catalogue commemorating 10 years of collaboration between The Matthiesen Gallery, London and Stair Sainty Matthiesen, New York, 1993, pp. 44-51, col. pl.

Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Genre or Daily Life
Italian - Bolognese
2001-2001: An Art Odyssey (1500-1720)
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