Costumed all’antica in a loose white gown trimmed with gold and accompanied by a figure of Cupid, the sitter in this portrait has clearly been cast in the guise of Venus, the ancient Goddess of Love. A golden circlet studded with pearls and coral crowns her copper-colored curls, and matches a set of pearl earrings. Yet despite the flattering idealism inherent in this allegorical conceit, the sitter is rendered with surprisingly realistic frankness and an informality highly unusual in portraiture of the period. Mature and handsome—rather than young and pretty—her hair curls and even frizzes at her temples and her cheeks are flushed in an especially naturalistic manner. Her pose is quite relaxed; shown a little more than half-length and seated, one elbow is raised to rest on a cushion, while with her opposite hand she caresses Cupid, who looks to her but points towards the viewer, creating an instant connection between the two.
This beautiful and compelling portrait is an important recent rediscovery and a significant addition to the known oeuvre of Giulio Cesare Procaccini. It emerged in 2019 on the Spanish antiques market, at which time it was attributed to the “School of Gandolfi.” Now recognized as the work of Procaccini, the painting will be included in the forthcoming monograph on the artist by work by Hugh Brigstocke and Odette D’Albo. The painting is in an excellent state of preservation, and during a treatment in 2019, an old canvas addition to the top of the canvas measuring about forty centimeters was removed, restoring the work to its correct proportions.
Born in Bologna in 1574, Procaccini moved with his family to Milan in 1587. He began his career as a sculptor but around 1600 turned his focus entirely to painting. By 1610, his reputation as one of the city’s leading painters was firmly established, as is evidenced by his involvement in major civic artistic projects. Significantly, he collaborated on the cycle of paintings depicting the miracles of Carlo Borromeo in the Duomo, commissioned as part of the canonization process for the Milanese archbishop. The dynamic modelling of the figures in these and other works clearly reflects the formation the artist received as a sculptor, although the sweetness of the facial features and expressions echoes the works of the Emilian painters Correggio and Parmigianino. Indeed, the originality of Procaccini’s style comes from his synthesis of Central Italian and Lombard elements with the pioneering innovations of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who was active in Italy between 1600 and 1608, especially in Genoa. Indeed, it is significant that Procaccini’s most important patron was the Genoese nobleman Giovanni Carlo Doria (1576–1625), one of the most wealthy and cultured collectors of his time, and that Procaccini spent time in the city where he would have had access to many works by Rubens. 
This painting is a rare extant example of Procaccini’s portraiture. No surviving male portraits by the artist are known today, although documents including the inventory of the artist’s studio at his death in 1625 and the inventory of the collection of Giovanni Battista Visconti in Milan in 1701 attest to the fact that the artist did produce such works. As for female portraits, a single example is known, the portrait of a gentlewoman with a youth that appeared on the art market in 2010. This work dates to the very last years of Procaccini’s career and is moreover unfinished (both the youth and the background are merely sketched in). Procaccini’s self-portraits, executed throughout the course of his career, are the main evidence for his skill as a portraitist. There is a small painting of him as young man in the Koelliker collection, a self-portrait included in the Transfiguration in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, a portrait of himself as a warrior in the Museo Lechi in Montichiari, and a group of later self-portraits in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, the Museo Cerralbo in Madrid, and the Brera, this last example dating to 1624, the year before the artist’s death.
During the 2019 conservation treatment, an inscription was discovered on the reverse of the canvas. It reads “Sʳ A·D” in large letters, which is an abbreviation of the name “S[igno]r A[gostino] D[oria].” This indicates that the painting was in the collection of Agostino Doria (d. 1640), the son of Giovanni Carlo Doria. The inventory of Giovanni Carlo’s collection made between 1617 and 1621 lists but a single female portrait by Procaccini, recorded as “la Flaminia comica,” and valued at 25 Genoese lire.
The “comica” mentioned in the inventory can, furthermore, be identified as the renowned actress Orsola Posmoni Cecchini (ca. 1580–after 1633), whose stage name was Flaminia. She was active at the court of the Gonzaga at Mantua, as well as in numerous other Italian cities, including Milan, Naples, Florence, Rome, and Venice. Orsola’s origins are not recorded. The earliest documentation for her life is a letter sent from her to the Duke of Mantua in 1602, and from which we learn that she was by that point in time married to the celebrated actor Pier Maria Cecchini. One work composed by her, the “Prologhi di Flaminia Cecchini, Comica Accesa, recitati al Serenissimo Signor Duca di Savoia” (1605) is known, as is a volume dedicated to her, entitled “Raccolta di varie rime in lode della sig. Orsola Cecchini nella Compagnia de gli Accesi detta Flamminia,” published in Milan in 1608. She starred in many comedies written by her husband, including La Flaminia schiava (1610), L’amico tradito (1633), and “della Pazzia di Flaminia.” Though neither the text nor the story of this last play survives, and its date is not clear, it seems to have been a long-standing favorite of the actress which she performed in Milan at the start of the century and again in Florence in 1623.
No portraits of the actress survive, and contemporary poetry celebrating her talents only notes that she was blonde and very attractive. Of her personality, more is known. She was apparently an enormously charming woman of strong character, though her detractors, for example the actor Giovanni Battista Andreini, writing in 1609, note that she was often reckless in her conduct. Indeed, in Turin in that year, she incited a great scandal with rumors of a relationship with her fellow actor Jacopo Antonio Fidenzi, and she was moreover implicated in the murder of the comic Carlo De Vecchi at the hands of her her husband at the close of the theatre season. Her brilliant career began to decline in the late 1620s, and though the date of her death is not known, the last documented mention of her is in a letter written by her husband in 1633. Because she specialized in playing the part of the lover, it is quite appropriate that she should be cast as Venus in her portrait by Procaccini.
It is not clear why Procaccini painted the actress’s portrait. It may have been commissioned directly by Giovanni Carlo Doria; alternatively, because the Procaccini family had close ties to leading figures in the Milanese theater, the commission may have come from within this circle, perhaps a member of her family, a lover, or, most likely, an admirer. The painting entered the Doria collection sometime before or between 1617 and 1621, when the actress was between the ages of approximately thirty-seven and forty, which correlates well with the sitter’s mature appearance and suggests terminus ante quem for the work. Also important to dating the painting in the very last years of the 1610s is the clear stylistic influence of Rubens’s portraits of Genoese noblewomen upon the depiction of Orsola Cecchini. Procaccini would have had the opportunity to study paintings like Rubens’s Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria (1606, National Gallery of Art, Washington, fig. 1) first-hand and in depth when he was in Genoa in 1618, living in the Doria household and completing his “Last Supper” in the Santissima Annunziata al Vastato. Rubens’s russet-haired beauty with flushed cheeks costumed in sumptuous white silks and set against a dramatic swath of red background drapery was clearly an important model for Procaccini’s portrait, although the latter painting brings to the pictorial equation a naturalism and informality which are without parallel in Rubens but are instead resolutely Lombard in sensibility.
Portraits of actors and actresses are unusual but not unknown at this date. The present work is thus a rare example of a type which includes works like the Portrait of an Actor by Domenico Fetti (1621–22, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, fig. 2) and a group of troupe portraits of Italian commedia dell’arte actors likely executed by French or Flemish painters in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth centuries (fig. 3). Moreover, although they were enormously popular in the eighteenth century, allegorical portraits in which the sitter is costumed as a figure from mythology, history, or the bible are few in the early seventeenth century in Italy, although Procaccini’s self-portrait as a warrior, mentioned above, offers some evidence of the artist’s interest in “fancy dress” portraiture. Since in the case of the present work he was depicting an actress, he had perhaps both more freedom and reason to envisage her in a “role,” rather than as herself, or may have been asked to do so by his patron in commemoration of a favorite performance. It might be noted that Antony van Dyck, one of the earliest pioneers of the allegorical portrait, spent a great deal of time in Genoa in the 1620s, and it is intriguing to speculate that Procaccini’s portrait anticipates, even in some small way informed, his own work in this genre (fig. 4).
 For Procaccini and Doria, see Hugh Brigstocke, Procaccini in America, Hall and Knight, New York, 2002, exh. cat.; Viviana Farina, Giovan Carlo Doria: promotore delle arti a Genova nel primo Seicento, Florence, 2002; and Viviana Farina in Piero, Boccardo, ed., L’Età di Rubens. Dimore, committenti e collezionisti genovesi, Palazzo Ducale, Galleria di Palazzo Rosso, and at Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola, Genoa, 2004, exh. cat., pp. 185–95.
 Vienna, Dorotheum, 21 April 2010, lot 44.