Oil on canvas, 23 7/16 × 17½ in (59,5 × 44,5 cm).
Inscribed: “A Sebastiano Serlio”, on the cartouche in the lower part of the panel.
Drawing: Bartolomeo Passerotti (attributed), Three studies of hands, Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana (inv. F 265 inf. n. 67), inscribed “Passarotti” (sic) at upper right.
Our Portrait of Serlio has been attributed to Bartolomeo Passerotti, not only for its stylistic features, especially the burgundy-coloured background, but also because of the felicitous link to a drawing (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana) with a study of the sitter’s elongated hand holding the metal compasses.1
It should be pointed out that artist and subject were both Bolognese and lived in the same period, although the painter belonged to a later generation. However, it cannot be a portrait made from life, since Sebastiano Serlio, the author of the Seven Books of Architecture, published starting in 1537, was born in Bologna but died in 1554 in Fontainebleau, where he had settled in 1541, having been summoned by King Francis I of France. The attribution of the painting to Bartolomeo Passerotti has been accepted by Daniele Benati, who intends to publish this hitherto unknown work. Benati believes it can be dated to a fairly late date in the painter’s career, around 1570, or even to the end of the 1570s. It is therefore impossible for Passerotti to have had the sitter pose for him, as by then Serlio had been dead for about twenty years.
This is therefore a commemorative portrait, for which we may imagine the artist had a drawn or engraved source for the likeness. There is no secure documented evidence of Serlio’s appearance, and Passerotti no doubt used a good deal of imagination in creating the portrait.2 Yet in spite of this, the painter has truly animated his subject, in part through the raised hand, as if the architect had just been interrupted while at work, gazing at us as if he were listening. The interest in light also reveals Passerotti’s penchant for naturalism, which went hand in hand with a special interest in realism, a potent element of his mature work, and not without influence on the Carracci.
Our portrait is striking for its richly-applied pigments, and the figure is defined by a flowing grizzled beard, with black clothing and a black hat that stand out crisply against the background.
1- The drawing is reproduced in Angela Ghirardi, Bartolomeo Passerotti pittore (1529-1592). Catalogo generale, Rimini, 1990, p. 218, fig. 55c, under no. 55.
2- Sabine Frommel, Sebastiano Serlio architetto, Milan, 1998, p. 17; eadem, “Un ritratto di Sebastiano Serlio?”, in M. G. Aurigemma, ed., Dal Razionalismo al Rinascimento. Per i quaranta anni di studi di Silvia Squarzina, Rome, 2011, pp. 71-79.