After passing through the collections of a noble Roman family and the noted Neapolitan antiquary La Pinacoteca, this work was first published in 2001 by Marco Gallo with the sound attribution to the Roman painter, Borgianni. The scholar, with his usual meticulousness, considered numerous possible identities for the sitter. He correctly excluded it as the painting owned by the Marquis Giustiniani depicting “una vecchia con panno bianco in testa depinto in tavola di un palmo in circa si crede mano del Brugiani con la sua cornice nero”, furthermore the dimensions do not correspond. A more likely possibility was, as Gallo found, another female portrait in the same collection described in 1638 as “ritratto della madre del Brugiani fatto dal medesimo Brugiani dipinto in tela da testa con cornice tutta dorata”. The measurements are similar, however, the lady in the present painting appears too plain and paysanne to be a portrait in honour of the artist’s mother (furthermore Gallo discovered other difficulties in connecting this work with the descriptions of the two paintings, for they were sold in 1812 in Paris, with the engraving that documented one of them).
Inventories indicate that the present work could be identified as the Portrait of Vittoria Campiglia, which Borgianni left in his will to the son of the sitter, and his pupil, Pietro Campiglia. However, the pose of the present sitter does not appear to be that used in a true portrait. It seems more likely, as Gallo explains, that the painting is instead an extremely beautiful study for a larger work, utilizing great and powerful realism. The head could have been used possibly for Saint Elisabeth or Saint Anna. A strong comparison, as argued by Gallo, can be made with Holy Family, Saint Elisabeth, Saint John and the angel from the Galleria Barberini or the three versions of the Holy Family and Saint Anna (two owned by private British collections and the third in the Roberto Longhi Foundation, Florence).
Strengthening the argument that the work is a study is the unfinished nature of certain areas (particular towards the bottom) where one can see vibrant brushstrokes that clearly have no definitive intent. The canvas, however, holds up well amongst some of the most genuinely naturalistic works by Borgianni (in a Caravaggioesque sense, with the extraordinary foresight with which the artist anticipates the style of the 1620s, from Lanfranco to Serodine and from Vouet to Valentin). The present painting can therefore be considered alongside the Barberini’s Holy Family, meanwhile offering a ‘truer’ interpretation without the velvety smooth ductus of Saint Elisabeth’s face. The present work can also be compared to the aforementioned trio of Holy Family with Saint Anna, as well as the more violent and audacious expressions by the artist, such as his St. Gerome. The St. Gerome is full of agitated and original brushstrokes, but not quite as naturalistic and lively in the rendering of physiognomy as the present work. It is safe to assume that both the Saint Gerome and this Head of an old lady were executed in the early years of the 1610s, as confirmed by Gallo.