Full of command and charisma, this picture is one of Ludovico Carracci’s outstanding achievements in portraiture. It was a genre in which he worked on only select occasions, but this likeness of Carlo Alberto Rati Opizzoni is testament to the revolutionary talent that made him a key exponent of the early Baroque.
The first record of the portrait dates to 1911, when it was exhibited at Palazzo Pitti in the Mostra del ritratto italiano dal Caravaggio al Tiepolo, with the sitter identified as Opizzoni, but the hand of Ludovico then unrecognised; instead, it was catalogued as an anonymous Bolognese work. It was loaned to the Florence exhibition by Conte Luigi Amedeo Rati Opizzoni (1877-1946), to whom it had supposedly been gifted by the city of Bologna, as it showed one of his important ancestors. Though the early provenance of the portrait, and the circumstances of its commission, are yet to come to light, the identity of the figure as a member of the Rati Opizzoni family is confirmed by the coat-of-arms in the upper right, with the crowned eagle rousant and the three torteaux below. A sculpted form of the same coat-of-arms appears on the walls of the medieval castle that was owned by the family in Val Borbera. The family indeed originated from nearby, in Tortona, Piedmont, where it was recorded in the thirteenth century, but they also held residences in Turin and Reggio Emilia.
Carlo Alberto, born in 1566, was one of a number of high ranking members of the family. He fought in battle against the Turks, and was appointed to the Order of the Knights of Malta in 1592. The cross of the Order is prominently displayed lower centre, glistening next to his armour. He was part of the entourage of Orazio Spinola (1537-1616), a cardinal and relative of Opizzoni, who was appointed papal vice legate to Bologna in 1597 by Clement VIII. Spinola was well acquainted with the Carracci family, and may have played a role in the commissioning of this portrait (see Brogi, op. cit., 2001, p. 177).
The cityscape of Bologna, seen in the left distance, is rendered with typical verve and delicacy. Alessandro Brogi perceives this landscape as a trademark of Ludovico’s authorship, describing the panorama as ‘perhaps more intense than the renowned, and later [view]’ that can be seen in the lower right of The Martyrdom of Saint Peter Toma (ibid.), which dates to circa 1613 (fig. 1; Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale). The famous two towers, the Asinelli and Garisenda, dominate the skyline, while the church of San Michele in Bosco is seen on the hill, beneath a bank of clouds. It demonstrates Ludovico’s mastery in summoning up evocative atmosphere, a sense that Sir Joshua Reynolds observed keenly in his pictures: ‘Style in painting is the same as in writing, a power over materials, whether words or colours, by which conceptions or sentiments are conveyed. And in this Ludovico Carracci, I mean in his best works, appears to me to approach the nearest to perfection. His unaffected breadth of light and shadow, the simplicity of colouring […] and the solemn effect of that twilight which is diffused over his pictures, appear to me to correspond with grave and dignified subjects better than the more artificial brilliancy of sunshine, which enlightens the pictures of Titian’ (J. Burnet, ed., The Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London, 1842, p. 28). Reynolds’s words could aptly be applied to this portrait, with his ‘breadth of light and shadow’ used to brilliant effect. The virtuoso highlights on the armour, together with the splendour of the helmet, the exquisitely-drawn right hand and the expert use of chiaroscuro for his face, create a dazzling sense of texture and form, all executed with a remarkable sense of assurance.
Although Ludovico was known to have painted portraits, only a handful have come to light, perhaps the most renowned of which is his Portrait of the Tacconi family, circa 1590 (fig. 2; Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale), a picture that prioritises intimacy and informality. Other more recently discovered portraits given to him include the Portrait of Lucrezia Bentivoglio (Private collection), and Portrait of Domenico Lanzoni with a servant (Rome, Pinacoteca Vaticana).
In his effortless pose, Opizzoni embodies that most enigmatic concept of sprezzatura, a certain form of ‘studied nonchalance’ that was famously explored by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier. It was deemed to be a virtue necessary for any courtier, to make even the most tiresome tasks look simple. For Ludovico, the picture is indicative of his great skill in evoking such mood and psychological depth, whilst using many of the tropes of so-called ‘status’ portraiture of the late sixteenth century, positioning the figure three-quarter-length with a window open behind. Yet with its added dynamism and gravitas, it marks a break from the models of portraiture employed by his immediate predecessors in Bologna, Bartolomeo Passerotti and Prospero Fontana. Instead it is more reminiscent of Titian, with echoes of the latter’s Francesco Maria della Rovere (fig. 3; Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), and anticipates the portraiture of great swagger of the Baroque, such as van Dyck’s Portrait of a man in armour (fig. 4; Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister).
Brogi dates the portrait of Opizzoni to circa 1597-1600, to Ludovico’s maturity. It was made at a moment of his career when he was at the height of his powers and his position as the leading artist in Bologna was unrivalled. His cousins, Annibale and Agostino, had left for Rome in the mid-1590s, leaving Ludovico to continue the work of the renowned Accademia degli Incamminati, the artistic academy founded in Bologna by the Carracci in 1582. The impact of the Accademia, which focused on the study of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, was revolutionary, and the decisive influence of the Carracci on the course taken by painting in Bologna, and beyond, has long been recognised. Ludovico himself, however, was arguably the most original and creative of the family. Keith Christiansen, in fact, described him as an artist of ‘incomparable range and imagination’ (‘A Late Masterpiece by Ludovico Carracci: The Tanari ‘Denial of St Peter’’, The Burlington Magazine, CXLV, January 2003, p. 22); and his singular talent is encapsulated in this masterful portrait.