Nicola Spinosa has proposed that this picture was painted in Rome in the 1630s, when the city was undergoing a renewed fascination with Caravaggio’s manner. Specifically, Spinosa recognised the hand of Mattia Preti, drawing parallels with the rich series of compositions carried out in that decade, when the Calabrian artist strikingly adopted the powerful chiaroscuro contrasts and concrete naturalism found in the Roman works of Caravaggio and his Northern European followers.
We cannot identify the individual depicted here. It could be a scientist – perhaps a geographer or astronomer from the Ancient world, such as Democritus or Anaxagoras. However, given the painstaking attention given to the details of the face and the elegant contemporary clothing, the painting could also be a portrait of a living person posing as an astronomer.
In his biography of Mattia Preti, Bernardo De Dominici makes mention of various philosophers and prophets, portrayed half- or three-quarter-length, inventoried in a number of Roman collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is likely that Mattia Preti drew inspiration for such pictures from the numerous half-length figures of saints, prophets, philosophers, scientists and wise men of Antiquity painted by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652).
- Yuri Primarosa "Il talento e il mestiere. Nuova luce sull' "Allegoria dei cinque sensi" di Mattia e Gregorio Preti", in Il trionfo dei Sensi. Nuova luce su Mattia e Gregorio Preti, exh. cat., Alessandro Cosma and Yuri Primarosa (eds) Rome, Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, 22 February-16 June 2019, pp. 11-34, fig. 26 p. 31.