Edited by Giulio Bora

Carlo Biffi enrolled in 1621 at the Ambrosiana Academy in Milan, where his father, Giovan Andrea, was sculptor of the Cathedral. According to Pellegrino Orlandi, who regrets he was not sufficiently dedicated to painting, he was a pupil of Camillo Procaccini (1561-1629) and a good draughtsman1.

After the death of his father in 1631, he took over his place at the Cathedral as sculptor and painter. Concurrently, he kept providing drawings for engravings, such as that for the portrait of the comedian and musician Francesco Gabrielli called Scapino (1633), noteworthy for the depiction of musical instruments. He also provided drawings for celebratory prints for thesis2.

He is first quoted as the draughtsman for the print Mount Etna by Cesare Bassano, a depiction of the ephemeral apparatuses erected in 1630 in the Piazza del Duomo in Milan to celebrate the birth of Prince Balthasar of Spain. An alternative drawing for the same print is preserved in Milano (Civica Raccolta di Stampe Bertarelli): here we can see a view of Piazza Duomo in the background, full of figures inspired by the etchings of Jacques Callot. Biffi’s interest in the comic and the grotesque is also attested by his engraving representing Four Heads, quoted by Le Blanc and signed 'Biffius F' (fig 1).

The image shows, going up to the left, a dark bearded face, a grotesque Leonardesque head, a young man with hat and child's face4. The facial types are directly inspired by the repertoire of Camillo Procaccini, but can also be connected with the work of the Bolognese painter Bartolomeo Passerotti (1529-1592), an important source for Procaccini who quoted him in many suggestive drawings in red and black chalk5.

In his Four heads engraving, executed around 1630, Biffi openly refers both in style and subject to Procaccini’s models, interpreting them with a more pronounced impetuousness.

The drawing with the Five Heads here discussed can be strongly linked to the model of the Four Heads print, as suggested by the common scaled sequence of the heads from the center to the left. In the drawing, the first face on the left belongs to an idealised female figure, flanked, as in the print, by a grotesque head followed by a head of a man with a hat. Two profile heads are also added to the right of the sheet. The style and figure types of the drawing are now detached from Procaccini’s model. The sheet can be interpreted as a personal invention intended for private collecting; similarities can be found in the repertoire of Ercole Procaccini (1605-1680).

The high quality of our drawing and the links with the print with the Four heads confirm its attribution to Biffi, whose reputation as an excellent draughtsman have been explicitly attested by Orlandi. However, the lack of comparison with other drawings by the author requires a certain margin of caution.

1 Orlandi 1707 [1753], p. 111.

2 Milano 1973, p. 68, no. 386, fig. 226.

3 Milano 1973, p. 67, no. 373, 374, pl. 220; Bora, Marani 2017, pp. 29-35. On Carlo Biffi see my forthcoming volume Seicento a Milano. Artisti e istituzioni.

4 Le Blanc 1854-1890, I, p. 339. A specimen is in Milan, Civica Raccolta di Stampe Bertarelli.

5 See Ward Neilson 1979, figs. 345-365; Rabisch 1998, pp. 197-198.

Al museo 1997, p. 155, pl. IX,7, as Camillo Procaccini.

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