In this sensitive and intimate double portrait Federico Barocci depicted a nobleman proffering an oak branch full of acorns to a young woman. The bearded male figure, dressed in a severe black costume, stands behind the woman pointing to the oak branch. The branch is not that of a live tree, but rather a crafted work of gilded bronze with a paper strip woven through its metal leaves. This cartello may have once been inscribed with a message, but no traces of it remain. The woman, to whose attention he brings this branch, looks up pensively from her reading. She wears an elegant gold and grey dress with a white ruff collar and cuffs and around her neck there is a lustrous strand of double pearls from which a gold and pearl medallion is suspended. The picture's format suggests the celebration of a conjugal relationship. The oak and acorns, an emblem long associated with the Della Rovere family of Urbino, indicate that at least one of the two sitters was a member of that family. However, the sitters and the event being commemorated have proven to be difficult to identify.
The woman in the double portrait bears a strong resemblance to the portrait of a young woman by Barocci in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. Harald Olsen first suggested that this picture might represent Lavinia della Rovere, the sister of Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere, who in 1583 married the Alfonso Felice d'Avalos, the Marchese del Vasto. (1) Because he thought that it was stylistically similar to The Madonna del Gatto (London, National Gallery), Olsen dated this work to c. 1570-75. But Andrea Emiliani has pointed out that there is a study for the portrait on the verso of a drawing for the Noli me tangere (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) that can be dated c. 1590. (2) Barocci often reused paper, so the drawings cannot be used for dating the painting. Since the sitter in the Uffizi painting appears to be young and the painting stylistically earlier than 1590, Emiliani tentatively suggested that it might be of Lavinia at the time of her unhappy marriage to the Marchese del Vasto.
Although the two women with their pointed chins, soft brown eyes and reddish hair swept up with a small flower pinned at the crown could be the same, Benedetta Montevecchi has raised doubts about identifying the woman in the double portrait as Lavinia. (3) She feels that the emblematic reference to the Della Rovere oak branch indicates that the man, not the woman, is the member of the family. She, therefore, has suggested that the sitters are Francesco Maria II della Rovere and his second wife and cousin, Livia della Rovere. They were married on 26 April 1599, but it was not an event of great joy, the duke simply recorded in his diary: 'Sposai la signora Livia Della Rovere'. Montevecchi, however, does not think that the picture was painted to celebrate their marriage, but rather to commemorate the birth of their son Federico Ubaldo in 1605. If she is correct about this, it should be pointed out that the composition is based on an Annunciation. Like the Madonna, Livia's reading is interrupted by the arrival of Francesco Maria, who like the angel Gabriel holds a branch of flowers. Livia was born in 1585 and was twenty at the time of her son's birth. However, the woman in the portrait appears to be older and the figure of the male too young to be Francesco Maria, who was considerably older than his second wife. (4)
Although the identification of the sitters for now must remain a mystery, there is little doubt about the attribution. Andrea Emiliani and Edmund Pillsbury have both agreed that the double portrait is an autograph work by Federico Barocci. (5) The dating of Barocci's portraits is no easier to resolve then the identification of his sitters. Early in his career he was influenced by the work of Scipione Pulzone in Rome, and a little later by the Florentine tradition of Bronzino and above all the international court style of François Clouet and Antonio Moro. Barocci had a sense of recording history, but at the same time an incredible rapport with the psychological reality of his sitters that is clearly evident in this exceptional double portrait. There is a poetic lyricism in his intimate and tender moment between husband and wife. The sombre palette and almost transparent flesh tones give the portrait a delicate fragility.
1)H. Olsen, Federico Barocci, Copenhagen, 1962, p. 157. Bellori and Baldinucci recorded portraits of Lavinia by Barocci, but neither of them mentions a double portrait.
2) A. Emiliani, Federico Barocci (Urbino 1535-1612), 2 vols, Bologna 1985, I, p. 91. The drawing is in Munich, inv. 13759. For the Noli me tangere, see Emiliani 1985, II, pp. 238-49.
3) See the entry by B. Montevecchi in Urbino, 2000, p. 36, no. 6.
4) S. Eicher, Ms. Communication, has expressed doubts about the identification with Livia.
5) Oral communication to Patrick Matthiesen. Keith Christiansen is of the same opinion.