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Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-64)

A presumed self-portrait c. 1645-50

Etching | 18.8 x 13.8 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 830472.g

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  • A self-portrait etching of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione: head and shoulders, with unkempt hair, beard and moustache. He wears a plumed beret. Signed in the plate, upper left; G. CASTILIONUS GENOVESE. FE.

    Castiglione was born in the port city of Genoa, home to many trading communities from elsewhere in Europe and beyond – primarily Flemish and Dutch, but also Turkish, Armenian, Greek, Jewish and African – and throughout his career he showed a strong taste for the exotic, as seen in the details of his paintings of Old Testament subjects and in his prints. During the 1640s Castiglione made two series of etchings known as the Small and Large Oriental Heads, exercises in extravagant dress, physiognomies and expressions; the present etching, which does not form part of a series, probably depicts Castiglione himself. The identification of the print as a self-portrait has been questioned but the confidence, even cocky defiance that issues from the face, staring directly at us, would seem to render such doubts redundant. The velvet beret and ostrich feather – a distinctly bohemian look, even in the seventeenth century – were to recur frequently in Castiglione’s works when he wished to indicate the presence of the artist: other than a silk cloth draped over his loins, that beret and feather are the only ‘clothing’ of the youth at the centre of his etching of the Genius of Castiglione (RCIN 830465). Castiglione’s principal inspiration in such prints was the genre of ‘character heads’ seen in the etchings of Rembrandt and Jan Lievens (1607–74), and he was indeed the first artist in Italy known to have copied directly from Rembrandt. There was a well-established trade in prints between Italy and the Low Countries: whether or not Castiglione knew the exact Rembrandt etching, (RCIN 808192), it is clear that he modelled his own etchings on such prints and that he fully understood Rembrandt’s own exercises in exotic dress to be thinly disguised self-portraits.

    Probably Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice; from whom purchased by George III, 1762

  • Medium and techniques



    18.8 x 13.8 cm (sheet of paper)

  • Alternative title(s)

    Studies of Heads of Men in Oriental Head-dresses (large)