Van Dyck's Portrait of Cardinal Bentivoglio

This article is reprinted from the Winter 2016 issue of the Members’ Magazine.

oil painting of portrait of cleric seated in red robe and white lace on his lap


While serving as the chief minister to France, Cardinal Jules Mazarin wrote to the prelate Zongo Ondedei in 1641, enumerating the qualities of a fellow cardinal: “Angelic morals, a sweet nature, noble thoughts, prudent, wise, experienced, witty, ingenious...” Mazarin used these superlatives to describe Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio, one of Rome’s most powerful men and the subject of Anthony van Dyck’s masterful portrait of 1623. The painting, a tour-de-force of elegance and grace, not only brings to life Mazarin’s observations but also confirms Van Dyck’s reputation as one of the most celebrated and accomplished portraitists of the seventeenth century. For only the second time in its history, the painting leaves Italy, traveling to the United States for the first time, where it is on view only at The Frick Collection, as part of the museum’s special exhibition Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture (March 2 through June 5, 2016).

The celebrated portrait of Bentivoglio, arguably Van Dyck’s most famous, combines outward magnificence and introspective psychology. Art historian Janet Southorn has described the way in which “the natural, unforced presentation of the sitter, the alertness of his gaze . . . convey a sense of the life, the intelligence and the sensitivity to beauty in Guido Bentivoglio. All that Van Dyck failed to portray, and it may not have been granted to him to see, was the robustness of Guido—it is not easy to imagine that this slender figure...marched alongside Ambrogio Spinola [a Genoese general], and played tennis against him for money.”

Guido Bentivoglio was born in Ferrara in 1577. His parents, Cornelio Bentivoglio and Isabella Bendidei, were influential aristocrats; the Bentivoglios, in particular, were among the most illustrious families in Emilia, an area of the Po Valley. His two brothers, Ippolito and Enzo, ran the family’s affairs in Ferrara, Modena, and Rome while Guido pursued a career in the Catholic Church, as many younger brothers in noble families did at the time. The subjects he studied at the University of Padua—law and philosophy—proved useful later in his career when, in the early 1600s, he became cameriere segreto (personal secretary) to Pope Clement VIII. He subsequently traveled for nearly fifteen years on diplomatic missions, serving as the papal ambassador to Flanders (1607–15) and France (1615–1621). While in Flanders, he was an active member of the court of Archduke Albert and Isabel in Brussels and became particularly involved with political maneuvers during the war between Spain and the Netherlands. He was a firm promoter of Catholic catechism in Flanders and campaigned against the ongoing Protestant spread, and, in 1609, he was among the diplomats who signed the Twelve-Year Truce. In recognition of Bentivoglio’s success as papal ambassador, Pope Gregory XV made him a cardinal in 1621.

Two years earlier, in 1619, Bentivoglio’s brother, Enzo, bought a palace from the Altemps family on the Quirinal Hill in Rome. This large and magnificent building was built in the early seventeenth century for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V, who famously displayed works from his art collection and planted impressive gardens. Guido moved into the palace with Enzo, and, over the next twenty years, the two brothers lavishly decorated the palace.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Cardinal Bentivoglio was one of the most important and inspiring artistic patrons in Rome. He was devoted to literary pursuits and was the author of a famous three-volume history of the Flemish religious wars, as well as a book of memoirs. He collected Flemish tapestries and was a particularly ardent admirer and collector of Claude Lorrain’s work.

It is possible that Van Dyck met Bentivoglio sometime during his Flemish embassy, for when the painter traveled to Rome in 1622–23, the cardinal was among his most supportive and conspicuous patrons. According to Giovan Pietro Bellori, one of Van Dyck’s biographers, the painter “was maintained at the Court of Cardinal Bentivoglio, who had a fondness for the Flemish nation because he had lived in Flanders.” Most likely, the young Van Dyck resided as a guest in Bentivoglio’s brother’s palace on the Quirinal and painted works for the cardinal there. Bentivoglio commissioned from Van Dyck a small, cabinet-size crucifix (now lost) and the full-length portrait opposite, which was most likely painted in the rooms of the same palace where both patron and painter lived.

In the portrait, Bentivoglio is shown wearing the typical costume of a prince of the Church: a crimson gown and mozzetta (elbow-length cape) of watered silk over a white rochetto (tunic) decorated with fashionable Flemish lace. He is shown sitting in an elegant chair, and the marble column and balustrade behind him suggest a grandiose setting, quite likely an imaginary one, but possibly referring to the family palace in Rome. The heavy velvet curtain to the right and the cloth covering the table on the left—which echo the color of the cardinal’s outfit—are an astonishingly stylish exercise in rendering crimson fabrics. Both the floor and the chair are decorated with imperial eagles, part of the coat of arms of the Bentivoglio family. (The Bentivoglios claimed an imperial lineage, believing themselves to be descendants of Enzo, King of Sardinia and the natural son of the thirteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen.)

In Renaissance portraiture, popes and prelates were usually shown seated; famous examples include Raphael’s depictions of Julius II (National Gallery, London) and Leo X (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) and Titian’s portrait of Paul the III and two of his grandsons.brown ink drawing of man seated in robes with pointed hat Van Dyck knew many of these paintings, and he even sketched papal portraits by Raphael and Titian in a small notebook that he used while in Italy, known as the Italian Sketchbook (now in the British Museum, London). He most likely made several preparatory drawings of Bentivoglio in his brother’s Roman palace. A pen and ink drawing, preserved in the Petit Palais in Paris and included in the exhibition, has been connected to the Bentivoglio portrait. While in Rome, Van Dyck produced portraits of other cardinals, including one of Francesco Barberini, Pope Urban VIII’s nephew. It is unclear if the drawing in Paris provides the evidence for a drastic change in composition in the Bentivoglio portrait or if it is instead a preparatory study for the (now lost) portrait of Cardinal Barberini.

Twenty years after Van Dyck portrayed Bentivoglio, the cardinal’s family underwent a series of financial setbacks, and Enzo was forced to sell the palace in which Van Dyck and Bentivoglio had lived. The large building on the Quirinal was by then considered among the most beautiful private residences in the Eternal City, and the buyer was Jules Mazarin, a cardinal who was on his way to becoming the de facto ruler of France. (It was Mazarin who wrote the 1641 letter praising Bentivoglio.) When Urban VIII died, in 1644, the French government was said to support Cardinal Bentivoglio’s candidacy to the papacy. It was not meant to be, however. On September 7, 1644, during the conclave to elect the new pope, Bentivoglio died.

Less than ten years after the cardinal’s death, in 1653, one of his heirs gave the Van Dyck portrait to Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and for a period it was displayed in the most important room at the Uffizi, the so-called Tribuna, before being transferred to the Palazzo Pitti, sometime after 1687. The painting was among those chosen by Napoleon in 1799 to leave Italy to enter the collections of the Musée Napoleon in Paris, but after the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, it was returned to the Palazzo Pitti. Except for the brief Napoleonic interlude, it has remained there, where it has always been counted among the museum’s masterpieces. The anonymous writer of an eighteenth-century French biography of Van Dyck recorded that “of all the portraits that Van Dyck painted in that city [Rome], the one of Cardinal Bentivoglio that we see in the gallery in Florence is the most beautiful, and he has not painted anything since that has surpassed it. The whole of Rome rushed to see that marvel of art, and everyone wanted to be painted by the hand of our artist.”

The portrait was widely emulated in the centuries that followed, and a large number of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portrayals of popes and cardinals are heavily indebted to Van Dyck’s example. In many ways, Van Dyck’s Cardinal Bentivoglio became the prototype and benchmark for the image of any prince of the Church made after 1623. The painting is among the most important loans to the exhibition at the Frick, and it is my favorite work in the show. The English eighteenth-century painter Jonathan Richardson saw the portrait in Florence and wrote rhapsodically about it: “I never saw anything like it. I look’d upon it two Hours, and came back twenty times to look upon it again...the colouring is true flesh and blood, bright, and transparent.”

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio, 1623. Oil on canvas. Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Photo courtesy of Scala / Art Resource, NY

Van Dyck, Guido Bentivoglio, Seated, 1623. Brush and brown ink over black chalk (and graphite?). Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais, Paris

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