The people in this group portrait have not been identified, but they may be from Venice as the dress of the men is Venetian in style. The child’s costume, which is recognisably that of a girl, can be dated to around 1540.
The central man – probably the girl’s father – holds her protectively in his arms. He looks directly at us, his right hand apparently pointing at something beyond the right edge of the painting. It is very rare in sixteenth-century Italian portraiture to find a female child included among an all-male group. It is possible that this portrait was originally a larger family portrait that was cut down and adapted over time.
The fusion of North Italian and Netherlandish style and technique suggests the picture may be by a North Italian painter influenced by Netherlandish art.
This group portrait was given by Pope Urban VIII (1568–1644, Pope from 1623) to his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini. The subjects have not been identified, but it is thought that they may be from Venice as the dress of the men is Venetian in style. The child’s costume, which is recognisably that of a girl, can be dated to around 1540; her appearance, age and clothes recall Titian’s Portrait of Clarissa Strozzi of 1542 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).
It is very rare in sixteenth-century Italian portraiture to find a female child included among a group of male relatives, as we might assume these to be. Usually the male heir and other sons would be represented with the men of the family (as, for example, in Titian’s The Vendramin Family) and daughters would be depicted near to their mother and female relatives, or in a separate portrait with them.
The central man – probably the girl’s father – holds the standing child protectively in his arms, his thumb almost touching her chin. She appears to be about two years old. He looks directly at us, his right hand apparently pointing not at the child but at something beyond the right edge of the painting. His body in its black robes fills the entire width of the canvas. The two other men, squeezed into the space behind him, look like after-thoughts to the composition – rather like the way in which Lorenzo Lotto is thought to have added the son Niccolò into his existing Portrait of Giovanni Agostino della Torre. Although the man on the left is wearing a similar black costume and hat to the central man, the one on the right wears a brown robe, possibly a monastic habit, and his head is uncovered.
The little fair-haired girl holds a pale fruit resembling a peach, and rests her other hand on the central man’s arm. The elbow of her left arm is cropped, suggesting that the right-hand side of the canvas may have been cut down. It is possible that this was once a larger family portrait that was reduced in size and adapted.
The portrait is listed in four Barberini inventories (1629; 1630; 1631–6; 1692–1704) as a painting by Titian, but this attribution is impossible. The fusion of North Italian and Netherlandish style and technique suggests the picture may be by a North Italian painter who had absorbed Netherlandish influences or by a Netherlandish painter working in Northern Italy. It was once believed to be by Dirck Barendsz., who, according to the historian Karel van Mander, was in Venice in about 1555, or Jan Stephen van Calcar, who was born in Germany but moved to work in Venice, where he became a close follower of Titian. It now seems more likely to have been painted by a North Italian artist influenced by Netherlandish art, although we don't know who, leaving this intriguing portrait something of a mystery.
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