Catalogue No. 28
Seated half-length, oil on canvas; 52 ins by 41 1/2 ins

Artist: Rubens, Sir Peter Paul
Portrait of Violante Maria Spinola Serra

c. 1607
Seated half-length, oil on canvas; 52 ins by 41 1/2 ins

Collection Details
Palazzo Grillo Cattaneo, Genoa (1823; without identity); according to the 1899 sale catalogue, Sir Francis Clare Ford (who inherited the collection of his father, Richard Ford, and d.1899); sold H A Peto sale at Christie’s 13 May 1899, lot 57 (without identity): bt by Lesser, and at his death resold at Christie’s, 10 February 1912, lot 90 (as the Infanta Isabella): bt by Hahn; R H Ward, from whom bought by Agnew, 1929 (cf Burchard, infra, as Brigida Spinola Doria), and sold to Lord Faringdon, 1942.

Repd. in E Michel, Rubens, 1899, ii, p. xii; L Burchard, ‘Genuesische Frauenbildnisse von Rubens’, Jahrbuch der Preussischen Kunstsammlungen, L, 1929, pp. 346–9, Pl. ii: Justus Müller Hofstede, ‘Bildnisse aus Rubens “Italienjahren”’, Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen in Baden-Württemberg, 1965, pp. 96, 143 n. 26 (as an autograph variant replica of the Karlsruhe picture); Jan Lauts, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe: Katalog Alte Meister bis 1800, 1966, p. 260; M Jaffé, Rubens and Italy, 1977, p. 77 (as an autograph repetition of the Kingston Lacy portrait, of Veronica Spinola Doria); Corpus Rubenianum: Part XIX: Portraits (by Frances Huemer), 1977, No. 44, pp. 173–4, fig 125 (as an autograph variant of the Karlsruhe picture, of Veronica Spinola Doria); 'Dipinti di Rubens a Genova per Genova' in L'Età di Rubens, exh. cat, ed. P. Boccardo and A. Orlando, 2004, pp. 23-53, cat. 1.9, p.29, and cat.5, pp. 65-5; A. Orlando, 'Die Frauen der Familie Serra Zur Identität der Rubensbildinisse in Genua' in Peter Paul Rubens: Becoming Famous, exh. cat., 2021), 185-201, fig. 1, pp. 186-7; A. Orlando, I Pallavicino di Genova, 2022; Rubens a Genova, exh. cat, ed. N. Büttner and A. Orlando, 2022, pp. 180-6 and cat. 39, pp. 270-4; G. Martin, 'Rubens a Genova' (exhibition review), Burlington Magazine 1437:164 (December 2022), pp. 1274-7, fig. 16.

Exhibition Details
RA, Winter, Flemish Art, 1953, No. 174; Genoa, Palazzo Ducale, L'Età di Rubens, 2004; Genoa, Palazzo Ducale, Rubens a Genova, 2022.

Peter Paul Rubens’ portrait of Violante Maria Spinola Serra is one of a series of portraits of the women of the Serra and Pallavicino families of Genoa, painted during and shortly after his visits to the city in 1605 and 1606. The others are Veronica Spinola Doria (Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, no. 2505), Marchesa Maria Serra Pallavicino (Kingston Lacy, NT 1257098), Anna Maria Lomellini (known as Marchesa Maria Grimaldi) with an attendant (Kingston Lacy, NT 1257100) and Geronima Spinola Spinola with her granddaughter Maria Giovanna Serra (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, no. 2710). A further portrait of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, no. 1961.9.60), elder sister of Violante and Veronica, was executed the same time but may not have been specifically part of this series. The clothes, poses, facial features and settings of the Buscot, Karlsruhe and Kingston Lacy (Maria Serra Pallavicino) portraits are remarkably similar, leading to much previous confusion over the sitters’ identities. Recent research by Anna Orlando has led to reidentification of several of the sitters, all of whom were closely connected by blood and/or marriage. The portraits’ homogeneity unified them as a series of ‘beauties’ of the women of the Serra and Pallavicino families. Violante’s portrait was later cut down to a three-quarter length to be hung as an overdoor, where it was first recorded in the Palazzo Grimani in Genoa, but it was likely to have been originally full length, the same format as those of her sister and sister-in-law. 

Violante Maria Spinola Serra (1584-1652) was the daughter of Giacomo Spinola fu Federico (1534/35-1604) of the 'Luccoli' branch of the Lords of Roca and Tassarolo, and Geronima Spinola Spinola. Her father was procurator of the Genoese Republic in 1596-1587 and member of the Office of the Fathers of the Municipality in 1588, and commissioned a magnificent palazzo in the Strada Nuova, where the young Violante and her sisters grew up. In 1601, at the age of sixteen, she married Paolo Serra, son of the late Antonio Serra and nephew of Geronimo Serra, to whom her elder sister Veronica (1577-1617) was married. Veronica has been identified as the sitter in the Karlsruhe portrait, the surname ‘Doria’ deriving from her second marriage, following the death of Geronimo Serra in 1616. Maria Serra Pallavicino and Anna Maria Lomellini Serra, the sitters in the two Kingston Lacy portraits, were both sisters-in-law of Violante Maria Spinola Serra. The former was the younger sister of her husband Paolo Serra, while Anna Maria Lomellini, daughter of banker Tommaso Lomellini, was married to her husband’s younger brother, Franceso Serra. All three were therefore nieces, by blood or marriage, of Geronimo Serra and his wife Veronica. All four women were of the same generation and had probably been friends since childhood. The sitters in the fifth picture (Stuttgart), a double portrait, are Geronima Spinola Spinola, mother of Violante and Veronica, and her granddaughter Maria Giovanna Serra, eldest daughter of Veronica and Geronimo Serra. These ties of kinship account for the close facial similarities between the portraits.

At the time that Rubens executed these portraits, he was employed as court painter to Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Geronimo Serra and his business partner Nicolo Pallavicino, both patricians of leading Genoese families, provided banking and other services to the duke, and hosted him on his visits to Genoa, during which time they likely made the acquaintance of Rubens. There is no record of payment for any of the portraits in this series, and it is probable that they were presented by Gonzaga to Serra and Pallavicino as gifts, and in recognition of the debts (financial, and for other services) that he owed them. The giving of portraits was common within the reciprocal exchange of gifts and services that underpinned the early modern system of patronage and the practice of instrumental friendship. The portrait of Maria Serra Pallavicino is dated 1606, the portrait of Veronica likely painted the same year, and the Buscot portrait of Violante is likely to have been executed shortly afterwards (c. 1607), the artist drawing on notes and sketches made during his visits to Genoa.

Although Rubens grumbled at being assigned such tasks by his patrons, his visits to Genoa nevertheless resulted in some of his finest portraits. They reflect the influence of his travels around Italy, and in particular the portrait style of late sixteenth century Venice, and the works of Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto.

Previously, the portrait at Buscot had been identified as Veronica Spinola Doria, as a variant of the Karlsruhe picture, on the basis of the similarity of the facial features, although the existence of two portraits of the same sitter in different dresses could not be satisfactorily explained. The new identification of Violante Maria Spinola Serra and others in the series provides a more credible explanation for the similarities between the portraits, locating them within the network of Rubens’ principal Genoese and Mantuan patrons.