This fine portrait of an elegant young lady was formerly believed to be the product of an anonymous Florentine artist. Further research into the picture’s origin and the identity of the sitter, however, has resulted in now giving it to the celebrated Roman portraitist Ottavio Leoni (1587 – 1630). Leoni was active in the first three decades of the seventeenth century and is most famous for his closely observed, true-to-life chalk drawings of prominent members of Roman society, but he is also known to have been an accomplished painter. The attribution of the present portrait to Ottavio Leoni has been supported by Italian scholar and Leoni expert Dr. Yuri Primarosa, whom we are very grateful for his expertise.
The young – probably teenage – woman is presented in three quarter length, seen from a slight angle. Her direct gaze is composed and confident, with a hint of a smile. She is dressed à la mode in a luxurious brocade gown and cape, with farthingale skirt. The heavy fabric is elaborately embroidered with flowers in metal thread and lined with stripes of gold braid. A stiff, elongated Spanish style bodice accentuates her shoulders and slim waist. A sumptuous lace ruff frames her innocent, fresh face. Her formal costume and precious jewelry indicate that she is a lady of high status. She wears large teardrop shaped pearl earrings, a pearl necklace and double strings of pearls around her wrists. A ring on her right hand, as well as the multiple filigree gold chains across her bodice are set with diamonds. Her right hand holds a pair of fine gloves, the other a small, luxuriously bound book and a lace handkerchief. An ornate tiara, adorned with diamonds and rows of teardrop shaped pearls crowns her carefully coiffed hair. A red carnation is tucked behind her right ear, symbolizing love, and implying that this portrait was probably commissioned on occasion of the young lady’s engagement or marriage.
In the first half of the 17th century Ottavio Leoni was a one of Rome’s most proficient and sought-after portraitists, who produced hundreds of drawings of the city’s leading personalities− popes, cardinals, members of the Borghese and Cesi families, famous artists (among them Caravaggio) as well as numerous “dame illustre.” Today, Leoni’s chalk drawings survive in many international museum collections. Historical sources also mention a number of portrait paintings in oil by the artist, which were mainly in the possession of his most important patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese and his family. The whereabouts of most of these works, however, are unknown today.
Two female portraits in oil attributed to Leoni appeared on the international art market in recent years and show notable similarities to the present canvas, especially with respect to the women’s pose, attire and jewelry (Fig. 1. and 2).
Portrait of a Lady, half-length, dressed in pink
Oil on copper, 28.7 by 22.1 cm
Portrait of a Noblewoman
Oil on canvas
70 x 53.5 cm
Aside from these two works in oil, several of Leoni’s chalk drawings of young society ladies show even stronger parallels to the present work, particularly with regards to their composition, but also with respect to costumes and hairstyles of the sitters. Leoni preferred to depict his models from a slight angle; they are directly gazing at the viewer, wearing lace ruffs, and some ear blossoms in their hair, similar to the lady in the present oil portrait.
Dr. Yuri Primarosa pointed out the extraordinary physical resemblance of our anonymous young lady to princess Carlotta Savelli in a drawing by Ottavio Leoni that is today in the collection of the Academia Colombaria in Florence (FIG.3). In the chalk sketch, the girl’s calm, collected expression, her grey eyes with pale lashes and only faint eyebrows, her high forehead, the shape of her nose and lips, the hairstyle, pearl jewelry and tiara, as well as the silhouette of her lace ruff and bodice with accentuated shoulders and parallel lines of gold braid bear a striking likeness to the present oil portrait. An inscription on the sketch identifies the sitter as the daughter of Paolo Savelli, Prince of Albano, and dates the work to 1627. According to Dr. Primarosa, the Savelli family maintained a prolonged relationship with the artist Ottavio Leoni, which is supported by historical documents that note a series of payments by the family to him, as well as a letter that mention two lost miniature portraits from the artist’s hand in their possession. He therefore suggests that the sitter in the present oil portrait can likely be identified as Carlotta Savelli, and that the present painting was probably commissioned in preparation for the girl’s marriage to Pietro Aldobrandini Junior in November 1627. The chalk drawing of Carlotta Savelli and her present portrait in oil both capture the delicate features of the young princess and her aura with exceptional sensitivity and skill, which strongly suggests that both works are from Ottavio Leoni’s hand.
Ottavio Leoni,Portrait of Carlotta Savelli (1608-1692), daughter of Paolo Savelli, Prince of Albano, 1627, Academia Colombaria in Florence Inv. 790, old inv. D 87/72
A portrait of a noblewoman in oil by Ottavio Leoni, which is located in an Italian private collection, was formerly thought to also depict princess Carlotta Savelli (Fig.4). The sitter in this work is comparably older and exudes the confidence of a more mature woman. Dr. Primarosa suggests that the lady is probably Licinia Leni Martinenghi and not a more mature Carlotta Savelli, as formerly believed.
Portrait of a Lady, (Licinia Leni Martinenghi?), c.1626
Private collection, Italy
 Dr. Yuri Primarosa wrote a shot essay about our present painting that VKS has on file.