This direct and intimate family portrait was painted by Lavinia Fontana in Rome at the very beginning of the 17th century. It is one of her finest portraits and one of the few works known from this period of her career. It shows Bianca degli Utili, wife of the nobleman Pierino Maselli, with six of her children, and provides an invaluable insight into the fashion of the time. The inscription along the upper edge of the canvas identifies the sitters as the Maselli family and thus confirms that the lady is Bianca degli Utili. The text of an epigraph formerly on her tomb in the church of San Lorenzo Damaso in Rome revealed a surprising amount about her: we are told that she was of Florentine origin, she married the Roman Cavalier Pierino Maselli, and died in September 1605 at the age of 37 after giving birth to her nineteenth child.1 This obvious but useful terminus ante quem for the execution of the work means that there is a quite short window of around twelve months for the execution of the portrait as Lavinia was not documented in Rome until 28 April 1604 and is known to have still been in Bologna on 19 February 1603.
The mater familias divides the portrait into two even if asymmetrical and contrasting sections. The three children to the left gaze out directly at the viewer and are presented in a pyramidal structure. They appear still, well-behaved and sit attentively to the artist. Conversely, the positioning of the three boys to the right of the composition is less strict. They are shown as rather more playful and animated, and two of the boys look at each other as opposed to the viewer, creating a less formal mood.
The portrait is remarkable for its meticulous attention to the detail of the different hairstyles, including Bianca's floral hairband, the embroidered costumes and for the wide range of textures shown, and can be compared to the earlier Portrait of a Noblewoman in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.2 The five boys wear outfits made from the same rich material while mother and daughter wear different dresses. All, however, wear clothes which makes use of quite pronounced dark and light fabrics and patterns. Mother and daughter also stand out from the boys by the elaborate jewelry they wear in the gold earrings and the pearls around their necks. While the cuffs of all the clothes differ slightly, all wear very similar sumptuous ruffs and particular attention has been paid to depicting the play of light and shadow on these.
Despite the elegance of the clothes and the formal setting, the portrait stands out for its sympathetic approach to the sitters and for the tender family context in which they are shown. As is the wont of young children, nearly all the figures are seen busying themselves by holding objects. The boy upper left is shown with a colorful bird tied to a little chain as his brother below him holds an inviting plate of fruit. In her right hand Verginia holds her mother's forefinger and with her left tenderly plays with the paw of the little dog, who comfortably seated on Bianca's arm, underlines her loyalty as a wife. To the right the middle boy's hands cannot be seen but the movement of his body suggests that behind his mother's back his hands are not idle. His two brothers both hold objects, the first a pen and inkpot and the second a medallion with the figure of a knight, the objects probably alluding to their future professions.
Though Bianca is shown here with five of her sons, particular attention seems to be drawn to the little girl, Verginia, for she is the only child whom Bianca is hugging and she is the only one to have her name inscribed above her head. It may well be that the portrait was painted specifically for her or in her honor, all the more so since we know that the painting has remained in the family of her immediate successors: later in life Verginia married Fausto Bartoli and one of their three children, Maria Felice, married into the Marchetti family, all of whom were based in Rome, where the painting remained until recently. This important addition to this relatively mature Roman phase in Lavinia's career is a testament to her abilities as a portrait- and costume-painter. The details of the elaborate clothing and the varied psychological portrayal of so many characters is only matched by one of her masterpieces, the Queen of Sheba's Visit to Solomon, in the National Gallery of Dublin, Ireland.3
The attribution has been endorsed by Professor Maria Teresa Cantaro, a copy of whose expertise accompanies the lot.
1. See V. Forcella, Iscrizioni delle chiese e d'altri edifici di Roma, Rome 1884,vol. V, p. 195, no. 557: "D.O.M./ EQUES PIERINUS MASELLUS AC/ BLANCA EIUS UXOR DE UTILIBUS/ FLORENTINI HUNC/ SEPULTURAE/ LOCUM SIBI POSTERISQUE SUIS/ PIE AC CONCORDE ELEGERUNT/ UBI PRAEDICTA BLANCA POST XIX/ PARTUM MAGNO CUM HONORE FUIT/ SEPULTA SEPTEMBRIS M.D.C.V./ VIXIT ANNOS XXXVII."
2. See M.T. Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana bolognese, "pittora singolare," 1552-1614, Rome 1989, pp. 128-29, cat. no. 4a. 46, reproduced in color.
3. Idem, 188-90, cat. no. 4a 85, reproduced in color.