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A Birth

Sustris Lambert

(Amsterdam c. 1515 - c. 1590)

This interior scene most likely represents St Elizabeth’s delivery. It is depicted with a sense of domestic intimacy in a style which betrays the influence of Flemish culture together with familiarity with the Venetian school. At the centre of the composition, two women and a small girl are around a table, while behind them an elderly woman – perhaps Elizabeth, or, in the view of some critics, Rachel – is lying on a bed, assisted by an old midwife. Their presence, together with those of a wet nurse with a newborn, of two small boys with a dog, and of several women in the background with a baby, undoubtedly alludes to the theme of infancy, which is here treated in all its guises. While at first critics could not agree on the name of the artist, more recent scholarship attributes the work to the Dutch painter Lambert Sustris.


Object details

c. 1550
oil on canvas
cm 78 x 101

19th-century frame with four corner palmettes, 96.2 x 117.5 x 8 cm


(?) Ferrara, Lucrezia d'Este, 1592 (Inv. Lucrezia d’Este, 1592, p. 14; Della Pergola 1955); Rome, Borghese Collection, 1783 (W. Heinse in Wiecker 1977); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 21. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.


Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1905-06 Luigi Bartolucci (pest control)
  • 2000 ENEA (diagnostics).


It is quite probable this work came from the estate of Lucrezia d’Este. Noted by Wilhelm Heinse in his description of the Borghese paintings in 1783 (see Wiecker 1977), the canvas was identified by Paola della Pergola in the following description found in the 1592 inventory of Lucrezia’s possessions: ‘A Nativity, which is a copy of the small canvas in Florence (Inv. Lucrezia d’Este, 1592; Della Pergola 1955). Assuming that we are not dealing here with one more version, the work in question is undoubtedly the one cited in the above-mentioned inventory, namely a derivation of the Birth of a Child currently held in Palazzo Pitti in Florence, which is acknowledged as a work by Friedrich Sustris (Inv. 1912, Palatina 394; A. Tamvaki 1999). If this is indeed the case, then the elusive subject is The Delivery of Saint Elizabeth, whose prototype was present in the 1589 inventory of the Uffizi Tribuna and which is known in two versions, one preserved in Braunschweig and the other in a private collection in Milan. (For a different opinion, see Hoogerwerff (1943), who hypothesised that the Borghese composition derives from a painting held in Blankenburg Castle).

Like the original, the canvas in question has been attributed to a variety of artists. While the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario ascribed it to the ‘Venetian school’, Giovanni Morelli attributed both the copy and the Florentine Birth of a Child to Scarsellino (see Della Pergola 1959). For his part, Adolfo Venturi (1893) proposed an unknown painter influenced by Parmigianino. The first critic to rightly suggest Lambert Sustris was Alfred Peltzer (1913-14): rejecting Giulio Cantalamessa’s proposal of Bertoja (see Della Pergola 1955), he recognised in the Borghese canvas the hand of a painter of Flemish culture who had been active in Venice for some time, while attributing the prototype in Florence to Friedrich Sustris, Lambert’s son. Peltzer’s opinion was upheld by Baumgart (1931-32) and confirmed by Paola della Pergola (1955); it has not been called into question by critics since (see most recently Herrmann Fiore 2006).

As we have seen, the subject is not clear. Nonetheless, it is possible that like the Florentine canvas it represents the delivery of St Elisabeth. Alternatively – as Marta Privitera suggested with regard to the Pitti Birth of a Child (in Magnificenza alla corte dei Medici 1997) – it might depict Rachel’s delivery of Joseph in the presence of Leah and his brothers. What is certain is that the presence of a wet nurse with a newborn, of two small boys playing with a dog, and of several women in the background washing a baby all allude the theme of infancy, represented here in all its guises.

Several variations of the work, dated to roughly 1550 (see Herrmann Fiore 2006), are held at the Louvre, the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Antonio Iommelli

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 64;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 134;
  • A. V. R. Peltzer, Lambert Sustris von Amsterdam, in “Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien”, XXXI, 1913-1914, pp. 237 ss.;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 198;
  • F. Baumgart, Giacomo Bertoia Pittore di Parma, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, 1931-1932, in “Bollettino d’arte”, 1931-1932, p. 463;
  • G. J. Hoogewerff, Lambert Sustris, Schilder van Amsterdam, Medeelingen van het Nederlansch Historisch Institut de Rome, XXII, 1943, pp. 97-117;
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 78;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1951, p. 50;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 139, n. 249;
  • R. Wiecker, Wilhelm Heinses Beschreibung romischer Kunstschatze Palazzo Borghese – Villa Borghese, (1781-83), Kopenhagen 1977, pp. 41, 86;
  • M. Privitera, in Magnificenza alla corte dei Medici: arte a Firenze alla fine del Cinquecento, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti, 1997-98), a cura di C. Acidini Luchinat, Milano 1997, p. 188-89;
  • A. Tamvaki, Lambert Sustris and El Greco, in El Greco in Italy and Italian Art, a cura di N. Hadjinicolaou, Crete 1999, p. 392, n. 128
  • A. Costamagna, La collezione di Camillo Borghese fra ricostituzione del patrimonio artistico e nuove acquisizioni, in Villa Borghese: i principi, le arti, la città dal Settecento all'Ottocento, a cura di A. Campitelli, Ginevra 2003, p. 103;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 81.