This striking portrait was first published by Mario Alberto Pavone in 2004. Its attribution has since been endorsed by Marcello Fagiolo dell’Arco and Francesco Petrucci, who published the work in his 2006 catalogue raisonné. The inscription on the reverse is the point de départ for the study of the picture; the graphologist Cristina di Leo considers this to be in Bernini’s own hand, a view accepted by Petrucci.
Bernini executed self-portraits throughout his career and often utilised theatrical disguise. He twice portrayed himself in the character of David (Rome, Palazzo Barberini and formerly Incisa della Rocchetta collection, the latter of Chigi provenance). His swarthy skin in our picture matches his son Domenico’s account of his physical appearance (Pavone, op. cit., p. 280). As Petrucci and Pavone observe, the angle of the head corresponds very closely with that of the early self-portrait in the Villa Borghese, Rome. Allowing for the passage of some two decades, the likeness of the features is compelling. Dr. Ann Sutherland Harris independently noted this, but commented on the surprising scale of the ears which are conveniently covered by hair in the Borghese sketch: it should be noted that the second, later, self-portrait in the Villa Borghese shows that the lobes of the artist’s ears were indeed rather large.
This portrait was produced in 1640, as a wedding gift for Alessandro Siri, a significant member of the Barberini entourage. Alessandro and his brother Giovanni Battista were the sons of Francesco Siri, a successful spice merchant from Savona, who settled in Rome. The brothers became bankers in the service of Bernini’s patron, Pope Urban VIII. Alessandro married Aurelia Gavotti, daughter of a distinguished Savonese family, and in October of that year, employing two of the Gavotti as intermediaries, the brothers acquired a palace in via Guarda at Savona for 20,000 lire. With the Gavotti, the Siri were briefly the leading patrons of artistic projects in the city. Bernini personally designed an altar in the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora della Misericordia for them, completed in 1665.
Bernini’s range was prodigious. He is of course most celebrated as a sculptor, but his contemporary Baglione, writing in 1642, commented on his talent as a painter and in one of the Avvisi, printed after his death, he is referred to as the ‘Titiano dei nostri tempi’ (Pavone, pp. 280 and 282, note 23). Most of his extant portraits in oil have the character of sketches. By contrast, this canvas is a finished work. The deep red drapery is not readily paralleled in other pictures by Bernini, although its folds do have sculptural qualities and its inclusion but might be an allusion to Siri’s marriage, recalling the theme of Venus and Mars. Dr. Sutherland Harris considers the drapery not to be autograph and has reservations about the lighter strokes of the hair and facial hair.
Following the death of their patron Urban VIII in 1644, the financial business of the Siri quickly deteriorated. Alessandro died in Rome soon after 1651, his widow in 1665. Giovanni Battista survived, apparently until 1671, by which time the collapse of his business had impelled him to return to Savona. The work passed into the Mancini Collection, founded by Filippo Mancini, Duke of Nevers (1641-1707), perhaps not long after the death of Alessandro. It remained with the heirs of the Mancini until recent times.