Niccolò Simonelli (died 1671) was a major figure in the Roman art world in the middle of the 17th Century. Judging by the thirteen caricatures of him by Mola that have come down to us (see also lots 35-36 in this sale), by turns playful, obscene and viciously satirical, he was an equivocal figure simultaneously generous to his artist friends and capable of acting with surprising venality. These two attitudes are relected in the conflicting images presented by the portrait of Simonelli attributed to Giovanni Maria Morandi in the Chigi-Albani Collection, in which he relaxes, richly dressed, among the treasures of his (or more likely his master Flavio Chigi's) collection, and the contrasting caricature in the Pierpont Library, New York, in which Simonelli, carried on angelic wings on some divine mission, exposes his bottom to the earthbound Mola struggling below (Lugano, op. cit., no. III.107).
Simonelli is first encountered in the households of Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio and of Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of Pope Innocent X. He seems to have developed very close links with the artistic community at this time and advised his masters on their purchases. He was responsible for launching Salvator Rosa's career in Rome with an exhibition of his painting of Tityus in the Pantheon (A. Bayer, 'A note on Ribera's Drawing of Niccolò Simonelli', Metropolitan Museum Journal, XXX (1995), p. 77). He was, however, also involved in less laudable ventures, including an incident in 1636 when he received, for the purposes of resale, a group of paintings by Pieter van Laer which were known to have been stolen from Herman van Swanevelt (A. Bayer, op. cit., p. 74). Simonelli was a close friend of Pierfrancesco Mola, who immortalised him in a series of at least thirteen caricatures including this and the following three lots. Demonstrating this closeness is an extraordinary caricature, now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, drawn in part by both men of the pair urinating together in the gardens of the Villa Pamphilj (Lugano, op. cit., no. III.92). It is possible that Simonelli supported Mola financialy following his return to Rome in 1647 (L. Spezzaferro, 'Pier Francesco Mola e il mercato artistico roman: atteggiamenti e valutazioni' in Lugano, 1989, p. 49).
Simonelli reached the peak of his career as guardaroba to Cardinal Flavio Chigi, nephew and favourite of Pope Alexander VII. In this role he was responsible for sourcing and purchasing both contemporary works of art and antiquities. By 1656 he was undertaking small commissions for the Pope, and by 1660 he was acting as an unofficial artistic advisor. Francesco Scanelli wrote admiringly that he was 'un de' maggiori intelligenti di pittura e buona antichità' (quoted in A. Bayer, op. cit., p. 76).
A number of caricatures of Simonelli by other contemporaries are known, including a mysterious drawing by Jusepe de Ribera in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (A. Bayer, op. cit., fig. 1) and another by Pietro Testa in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle (E. Cropper, Pietro Testa, Philadephia, 1988, nos. 99-100).