(Bologna 1529 – 1592 Rome)


Portrait of Don Lope Varona di Villanahue


Oil on canvas

46 ¾ x 37 ¾ inches
(118.7 x 96 cm)


Paul H. Ganz, New York; his sale, Sotheby’s, New York, June 4, 1987, lot 20; where purchased by:
A. Alfred Taubman, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (1987-2015)



Giovanna Poletti, “Alcuni ritratti inediti di Bartolomeo Passerotti e i manoscritti di Marcello Oretti ad esso relativi,” in Antologia di Belle Arti, 25-26, 1985, p. 86, fig. no. 6
Angela Ghirardi, in Vera Fortunati (ed.), Pittura bolognese del ‘500, Bologna 1986, vol. II, p. 546, illustrated p. 570
Corinna Höper, Bartolomeo Passarotti, Worms 1987, vol. II, p. 57, no. G43, illustrated no. 9b
Angela Ghirardi, Bartolomeo Passerotti, Pittore (1529-1592), Rimini, 1990, pp.51, 248-249, no. 75, illustrated p. 248, no. 75


This astonishing portrait is one of the most remarkable works by the Bolognese painter Bartolomeo Passarotti.  Passarotti’s oeuvre encompassed religious, mythological, and genre paintings, but it is his portraits that are most memorable and best known.  These combine sitters in relatively formal poses but with vivid, immediate, at times confrontational expressions, which are immediately engaging to the viewer.  The present work depicts Don Lope Varona, a nobleman from the Basque town of Villanañe, located between Bilbao and Burgos.  A distinguished scholar, Varona had graduated from the Real Collegio Maggiore di San Clemente degli Spagnoli, the Spanish College of the University of Bologna, in 1573.  He later studied law at the University of Salamanca before returning to Bologna, where he was appointed Rector of the Spanish College, a position he held from 1579 to 1580, during which period he also held the title of Rector of the University of Bologna.[i] It was presumably in those years, and probably to commemorate his appointments, that Passarotti’s portrait was painted.  The stack of books, one held by the sitter with his index finger marking his place, are icons of Varona’s erudition and scholarly stature, while his sword reflects his noble station.  The date of the painting is confirmed by the tall puffy hat that the sitter wears, a popular fashion in only in the 1570s.  After relinquishing his posts in Bologna, Varona returned to Spain, becoming Canon and Treasurer of the Cathedral of Badajoz, before being appointed Supreme Inquisitor for Sicily by Philip II in 1588 -- a position somehow appropriate for this austere but powerful man.[ii]

Passarotti’s earliest dated portrait (Marseilles, Museé des Beaux-Arts) from 1566 was followed by a series of commissions from some of the most celebrated and powerful men in Italy: Popes (Pope Paul V, Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery; Pope Gregory XIII ,Gotha, Museen der Stadt), Cardinals, architects, and aristocrats.  By the time that the present portrait was painted, Passarotti was the most prominent portrait painter in Bologna. 

Although other portraits of Don Lope Varona are not known, his frescoed coat-of arms remains to be seen in the Archiginassio Library in Bologna, the seat of the University where he was Rector (see above).


[i] Annuario della Regia università di Bologna, Bologna 1887, p. 249

[ii] C. Malagola, “Serie dei Rettori e dei Vice Rettori, reggenti e pro-reggenti nel Antico Studio e nella moderna Università di Bologna,”,in Monografia storico dello Studio bolognese, Bologna, 1888, p. 204.