Bellori, van Dyck's early biographer, pronounced in 1672 that 'travelling in other parts of Italy, he always came back to Genoa as if it were his own country, where he was known and loved by everyone.'1 The painter’s characterful and dramatic approach to portraiture saw him gain a vast amount of commissions from wealthy Italian patrons. Their particular desire for lavish and elegant costume portraits was realized by the talented Fleming, whose experience gained here served as a useful platform for his successful later career as portrait painter to the courts of northern Europe. In this regard van Dyck distinguished himself from his mentor Rubens in that in Italy, perhaps surprisingly for a painter of his renown, he did not align himself with a specific court or patron. Rather, he embraced a traveling mentality which kept him busy on a variety of private commissions for the local nobility. This bespoke, independent identity is the primary reason why portraits occupy the vast majority of his Italian output. Above all else, it was Titian whom van Dyck used as his primary point of inspiration for his Italian portraits. By 1626 when van Dyck painted this work, Genoa, and indeed much of the territory outside of Venice was filled with works by the Venetian master for van Dyck's consumption. Van Dyck's Italian sketchbook makes clear his intense observation of Titian's portraits and their dual pursuit of accurate artifice and personality. Such a pursuit positioned van Dyck as a key bridge between Titian and Velazquez, who in 1629 began a brief, but incredibly impactful year and a half trip through Italy.
An unsigned copy after this work is in the Musée du Louvre (inv. R.F. 1942 – 34). Both this canvas and the Louvre copy have both traditionally identified the sitter as Olivio Odescalchi (1655-1713), the nephew of Pope Innocent XI and legendary collector, but this identification is impossible given the dating of our picture to 1626. Instead, the sitter should be identified as a well-heeled nobleman, who would have undoubtedly paid a large sum for this portrait owing to van Dyck’s growing popularity by this point in his blossoming career. The coat of arms at upper right as thus far not been identified, though it does not belong to one of the more prominent and firmly identified Genoese families.
Of the Italian period portraits by van Dyck, almost none are signed and dated. A dated (1624) example, traditionally identified as Desiderio Segno (fig. 1) in the Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein, employs a near identical format and hand-writing. As in the Liechtenstein portrait, the sitter here also wears a simple yet refined black silk jacket with contrasting white lace collar and cuffs. Van Dyck's mastery of material is on full display here, particularly in the luxuriously draped left arm that shines through his deft ability to apply subtle variations of white and grey against the rich black paint.
We are grateful to Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes for confirming the attribution to van Dyck, based on first hand inspection.
1. G. P. Bellori, Le vite de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti moderni, Rome 1672, p. 225.
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