Ottavio Leoni (1578-1630)

“The Cavalier Ottavio Leoni, the son of Ludovico Leoni, Padovano, was likewise known as Padovano although he was born in Rome. His father desired him to devote to painting and particularly to make portraits “alla macchia”, a skill in which Ludovico was practised himself. Ottavio did so but specialized in portraits of reduced dimensions, and he became outstanding in this profession. In truth, there was no one of his age in this art who could equal him.” (Giovanni Baglione: Lives of the artists, 1642)

The expression alla macchia describes the making of a portrait on the spot in just one sitting. Italian artists used the word macchia (stain) to describe a painting or drawing made according to that method; such works are characterized by an extraordinary ease and freshness achieved with a few strokes and little colour making the whole appear sketch-like.

Unfortunately, by a strange twist of fate, no oil paintings by Ottavio Leoni have survived or been identified; therefore, his reputation rests on his excellent drawings. As most portraitists Leoni concentrated on the sitter’s facial features, sketching the costumes with the briefest, most rapid strokes. His drawings give an impression of immediacy that was the result of his search for naturalism and spontaneity. Baglione noticed that quality and commented on it:

“The greater part of these (drawings) are in black pencil on turquoise paper with clever touches of chalk; they are extremely faithful, and some are touched with a red pencil, so that they appear coloured and made of flesh. They are so natural and so alive that in that genre one could not do better” (Lives of the artists, 1642)

Leoni’s career was a successful one, and he produced an enormous number of portraits over the thirty years in which he was active. Based in Rome, he enjoyed the patronage of the clergy and the local nobility. An indication of how vast his output was is the sale, in 1747, of about 400 drawings by Leoni that were part of the great collection of M. d’Aubigny.

Some portraits by Ottavio Leoni:

Portrait of Tommaso Salini (Met)

Tommaso Salini, 1620 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) 22.6 x 17.2 cm

Tommaso Salini (1575-1625) was a painter who worked in the style of Caravaggio. The earliest documented record about him is his appearance as a witness against Caravaggio in the libel suit brought by Giovanni Baglione in 1603. Although he executed a few public commissions for altarpieces Salini is mainly remembered today as a painter of still-lives.

Ottavio Leoni and Tommaso Salini were friends to judge for the number of times that Leoni drew or etched the latter’s portrait. This drawing is a replica of a less detailed portrait contained in the album of Leoni’s drawings in the Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence.

Self-portrait as a Knight of Malta (Boston, MFA)

Self-portrait, 1625 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) 14.5 x 11 cm

Between 1621 and his untimely death in 1630, Leoni invested his energy in a series of portrait engravings of famous and worthy men of his time. The portraits om this series can be distinguished from Leoni’s other prints for his use of ornamental mouldings. For his portraits of artists, Ottavio adopted a twelve-sided frame, as we can see in this beautiful self-portrait. Poets and philosophers are portrayed within ovals.

This self-portrait represents Leoni’s highest technical achievement in printmaking. In order to attain subtle gradations of tone, he reinvented the technique of stippling, which is the use of the tip of the engraver’s burin to pounce on the copper plate.

Leoni wears the cross of a Knight of the Cross of Christ, an honour granted by Gregory XV in recompense for the portrait that Leoni painted after Gregory’s election as pope on 9 February 1621. He also proudly proclaimed his condition as a nobleman by writing Eques Octavi Leonus (Knight Ottavio Leoni) on the top left-hand corner.

RISDM 21-275

Licina Leni, Marchesa Martinenghi, 1626 (Rhode Island School of Design) 22 x 15.9 cm

Unfortunately, I could not find any information about this lady. She belonged to an ancient and illustrious Italian family, the Martinenghi who hailed from Brescia in Lombardy. The Martinenghi are mentioned in the book Origine e fatti degli famiglie illustri d’Italia (Origins and facts about the illustrious families of Italy) written by Francesco Sansovino in 1670.


Galileo Galilei, 1624 (Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence) 23.7 x 16.5 cm

The great Italian astronomer was 60-years-old when Ottavio Leoni portrayed him. At that time he had begun to work in his famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632. He was encouraged to write this work by his friend and admirer, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini who became Pope Urban VIII in 1623. Barberini had warned him against advocating heliocentrism. Unfortunately, Galileo either unknowingly or deliberately, could not help but ridicule Simplicius, the character who defends the Aristotelian theory of geocentrism supported by the Church, promoting thus heliocentrism. He was found suspicious of heresy and forced to abjure and reject his theories. He remained under house arrest until the end of his life in 1642

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