Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Head of an Old Woman

Orazio Borgianni (Italian, Rome 1578–1616 Rome)
after 1610
Oil on canvas
20 7/8 x 15 3/8 in. (53 x 39 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Gwynne Andrews Fund and Marco Voena and Luigi Koelliker Gift, 2010
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 621
Among the most modern seeming pictures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are informal studies of heads in which the artist eschews portraiture in favor of exploring character and expression. In this striking depiction of an old woman lit by a merciless shaft of light, Borgianni seems to give us a meditation on old age and mortality. Orazio Borgianni was one of the most individual followers of Caravaggio.
This arresting portrayal of an old woman was first published in 2002. It is reported to have belonged to a noble family in Rome, but further documentation is lacking. The woman is a peasant or working-class person. Borgianni, who was the son of Florentine carpenter, is known to have painted a picture of his mother that in 1615 he willed to one of his major patrons, Francisco de Castro, the Spanish ambassador in Rome. A portrait of his mother is also listed in a 1638 inventory of the famous Giustiniani collection in Rome (Danesi Squarzina 2003, p. 436, no. 148). Further, we know of a portrait of the deceased mother of his pupil, Pietro Campiglia (Gallo 2002). Whether the present portrait has any relation to these cannot be said. Although the picture has almost certainly been painted from life, with great rapidity and sureness of touch, it was not intended as a formal portrait but, rather, as an independent study. The distinction between portraiture and allegorical or genre-like pictures was not clear-cut. In a depiction of Democritus (Museo di Casa Martelli, Florence), Borgianni gave the Greek philosopher his own features. Gallo (2002) has observed that the old woman who appears in the MMA picture was used by Borgianni a few years earlier as a model for the figure of Saint Elizabeth in a painting of the Holy Family in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome (see Additional Images, fig. 1).

The picture dates after 1610. The extraordinarily loose brushwork and impastoed surface forecast features of later baroque painting. The canvas has been trimmed along the vertical edges.

Among the most original followers of Caravaggio, Borgianni was active in both Rome and in Spain. In Madrid in 1603 he signed a petition for the establishment of an Italian-style academy of painting. In Rome he was a member of the official painters' academy, the Accademia di San Luca, but also of the literary Accademia degli Humoristi, to which the poets Giovanni Battista Guarini, Gian Battista Marino, and Alessandro Tassoni belonged; Borgianni painted a portrait of Guarini. His membership in this literary academy implies a certain cultural sophistication.

[Keith Christiansen 2010]
private collection, Rome; sale, Antonina, Rome, 2001; [Pinacoteca di A. Calandra & C. Sas, Naples, from 2001]; Luigi Koelliker, Milan (by 2006–10); [Robilant + Voena, London, 2010]
Ariccia. Palazzo Chigi. "La 'schola' del Caravaggio: dipinti dalla collezione Koelliker," October 13, 2006–February 11, 2007, no. 21.

New York. Van de Weghe Fine Art. "A History of Taste: Collecting French & Italian Old Master Paintings for America," January 21–February 5, 2010, unnumbered cat.

Marco Gallo. "Ritrarre la traditio: un'inedita 'Vecchia' del Borgianni e il 'Ritratto di Tommaso Laureti'." Caravaggio nel IV centenario della cappella Contarelli. Ed. Caterina Volpi. Rome, 2002, pp. 335–37, 340 nn. 1, 9, p. 341 n. 14, fig. 1 (color), attributes it to Borgianni and dates it just after 1610 based on its similarity to the artist's portrait of Tommaso Laureti (Galleria dell'Accademia di San Luca, Rome); raises the possibility of identifying it with no. 148 in the 1638 inventory of the collection of Vincenzo Giustiniani: "un quadro col Ritratto della madre del Brugiani fatto dal medesimo Brugiani dipinto in tela da testa con cornice tutta dorata"; also suggests identifying it with one of two works mentioned in Borgianni's testament of 1615: a portrait of his mother (possibly also the work included in the Giustiniani inventory) or a portrait of Vittoria Campiglia, mother of his servant Pietro; discusses the possibility that it was conceived as a study rather than as a portrait, relating it to the artist's "Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth" (Palazzo Barberini, Rome) and "Holy Family with Saint Anne" (private collection, Great Britain).

Silvia Danesi Squarzina. La collezione Giustiniani. Turin, 2003, vol. 1, p. 446.

Gianni Papi in La "schola" del Caravaggio: dipinti dalla collezione Koelliker. Ed. Gianni Papi. Exh. cat., Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia. Milan, 2006, pp. 94–95, no. 21, ill. (color), agree that it dates to the early 1610s and that it is more likely a study than a portrait.

Francesco Petrucci. Pittura di ritratto a Roma: il Seicento. Rome, [2008], vol. 1, p. 151, fig. 220 (color); vol. 2, pp. 291–92; vol. 3, pl. 70, tentatively calls it a portrait of the artist's mother and believes it may be the work in the Giustiniani inventory.

Gianni Papi in A History of Taste: Collecting French & Italian Old Master Paintings for America. Exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York. [London], 2010, pp. 38–39, ill. (color).

Keith Christiansen. "La création tardive d'une collection de peintures baroques au Metropolitan Museum of Art / Creating a Baroque Collection at the Metropolitan Late in the Game." Aux origines d'un goût: la peinture baroque aux États-Unis / Creating the Taste for Baroque Painting in America. Paris, 2015, pp. 68, 72.

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