Although born in Ticino, in a town now part of Switzerland, Mola was definitively a Roman artist, his family having moved to Rome in 1616 when his father was appointed architect to the Camera Apostolica. Other than two extended trips outside the city, one a two-year stay in Bologna where he worked with Francesco Albani, Mola remained in Rome for his entire life. Mola's oeuvre ranges from ambitious religious compositions to evocative landscapes, often with diminutive figures providing a suggestion of subject matter. Among his most attractive and memorable paintings, however, are half-length and bust-format depictions of ancient literary figures. These vary in identity but have in common the depiction of an elderly bearded figure, often in contemplative or ecstatic attitude, his head crowned with laurel. These figures are characterized by a vigorously executed, richly nuanced physiognomy. Some with vacant eyes and a stringed instrument are traditionally called Homer (Rome, National Gallery; Dresden Gemäldegalerie, Moscow, Pushkin Museum; Ariccia, Palazzo Chigi); others Virgil (Milan, Koelliker Collection), Archimedes (Dresden), or Euclid (Private Collection). Many have only generic titles, such as an "Old Man," a "Mathematician," "Astronomer," "Poet," or a "Philosopher." The subject of the present work has traditionally been considered Socrates, a figure that Mola treated in his multi-figure composition of Socrates Instructing the Young on Self-Knowledge (Lugano, Museo Civico), but there is little internal evidence in the present painting to confirm that. He is very much an ancient literary type, and certainly a Mola type -that of the wise, authoritative, somewhat romantic poet. The attribution of the present work to Pier Francesco Mola was confirmed on first-hand inspection by Dr. Erich Schleier (in July 2011) and by Dr. Francesco Petrucci (in February 2012), who considers the painting a late work dating from the 1660s.
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