This engaging portrait of Fra Bonaventura Bisi, which has been the subject of much recent scholarly debate, is an important addition to the corpus of portraits by Guercino. At the time of the Sotheby’s sale in 1992, Sir Denis Mahon confirmed the attribution and proposed a date of no earlier than 1658. While Nicosetta Roio later published the picture in 2004 as by Benedetto Gennari (op. cit.), more recently David Stone and Daniele Benati have supported the attribution to Guercino.
The identity of the sitter in this late portrait has been established through an engraving by Domenico Maria Muratori (see A. de Vesme, Le Peintre-Graveur Italien, Milan, 1906, p. 344; not illustrated). Interestingly, although the engraving shows Bisi with a drawing of the Madonna and Child, in the present work he is depicted holding up a profile portrait in red chalk of Alfonso IV, Duke of Modena (1634-1662), for whom Guercino acted as a picture-buying agent.
Bonaventura Bisi, a Franciscan Friar from the convent of San Francesco in Bologna, was a practising miniature painter and engraver. A caricature drawing of the sitter by Guercino, preserved in the Ashmolean, Oxford, attests to Bisi’s friendship with the artist. As Professor Stone observes, the sitter’s appearance in the two portraits is conspicuously different; Bisi appears to be more robust and energetic in the pen and ink drawing, whereas here he appears older and more fragile.
Stone considers the Ashmolean sheet to have been executed around 1635-45, rather than the traditional dating to the mid-1650s, but supports Mahon’s dating of the present portrait to no earlier than 1658, the year Alfonso became fourth Duke of Modena, and before December of 1659 when Bisi died. He notes that while this composition recalls in its basic format an earlier portrait of the lawyer Francesco Righetti (1626-28; see L. Salerno, I Dipinti del Guercino, Rome, 1988, pp. 212-3), in which the sitter is shown before a bookcase full of volumes also bearing their titles on the bottom page edges, the present picture can be compared stylistically with the Self Portrait before a Painting of ‘Amor Fedele’, dated to 1655, which was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
We are grateful to David Stone for his kind assistance in cataloguing the present lot.