Born into the Genoese nobility, Giulio Spinola (1612–91) enjoyed a notably successful career, rising steadily through five successive papacies beginning with Urban VIII. In 1653 he was appointed papal nunzio to Naples. In 1665 Spinola was sent to Vienna by Alexander VII, who elevated him to the cardinalate in 1667.
This extraordinarily vivid portrait was painted the next year, 1668, by Gaulli, the Pope’s favourite painter. The good nature and quick wit of the new cardinal are evident even in this informal moment of opening some correspondence. The splendidly marbled silks of his mozzetta and of the plum-coloured drape behind him lend a theatricality to the scene into which Spinola enters with an unpretentious smile.
Several replicas of this Portrait of Cardinal Giulio Spinola are known (see the entry devoted to this painting in the catalogue of the Baciccio exhibition held in Ariccia, Giovan Battista Gaulli. Il Baciccio, 1999–2000, p. 111). The present picture is the only version that is signed and dated by the artist. The work is believed to have remained in the Spinola family in Genoa until relatively recent times. The 18th-century writer C.G. Ratti (1797, II, p. 88) must have had in mind this Cardinal Spinola when he commented that the artist “encouraged his subjects to make jests, laugh, and even move their head” while they sat for him.
John T. Spike