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Alexander the Great

Attributed to Cesari Giuseppe called Cavalier d'Arpino

(Arpino 1568 - Rome 1640)

Generally described as a warrior in the 18th- and 19th-century Borghese inventories, the figure depicted here can be identified as Alexander the Great. The work derives from a painting with the same subject executed by Giulio Romano in the 1530s. The attribution to Cavalier d’Arpino was given in the same inventories, yet not all critics have not been in agreement.

From 1939 to 1945, the painting was removed from the Galleria to decorate the Roman villa of Marshal Badoglio.


Object details

Inventory
469
Location
Date
first half of the 17th century
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 125 x 95
Frame

Salvator Rosa, 144.2 x 114 x 7 cm

Provenance

Borghese Collection, first cited in Inv. 1790, room II, no. 3; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 17, n. 33. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 2018 San Paolo del Brasile, Galleria SESI
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1951 Augusto Cecconi Principe (cleaning)
  • 2008 Laura Cibrario e Fabiola Jatta

Commentary

Attributed to Cavalier d’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari), the painting is a half-length representation of a young warrior, whose face and threatening expression are directed to his left. He wears a cuirass embellished with masks, while his gilded helmet is richly adorned with animal and plant motifs and a white plume. In the lower portion of the work we see that the warrior is wearing a sword on his belt, whose hilt is decorated with a lion’s head.

The lavish ornamentation, the presence of various attributes and comparison with similar portraits allow us to identify the portrayed man as the Macedonian king Alexander the Great. He further has an animal fur on his shoulders, an allusion to Hercules’s lion skin, which the Greek hero wore after slaying the Nemean lion as the trophy of the first of his famous labours. The representation of Alexander as Hercules in turn refers to the process of mythologising the young king, who was likewise considered a hero. It further tends to exalt his legendary semi-divine origin as the fruit of the union between Zeus and the mortal Olympias. This type of iconography dates back to the Hellenistic era, as shown by coins and sculptures depicting the Macedonian conqueror; it continued to be popular during the Roman Emperor and later in the modern era.

In the work in question Alexander holds a small statue of Nike, the goddess of victory, in his right hand. She is about to place the laurel wreath on his head, the symbol of triumph which in ancient times was reserved for the Olympian divinities, such as Zeus and Athena (as in the lost chryselephantine statues in Olympia and Athens, respectively, which depicted these gods with the same attribute); sometimes the wreath was associated with generals  of particular valour.

While the statue of Nike was a common symbol in triumphal representations beginning in Antiquity, it was generally placed next to victors and not held by them in their hands; the motif of the Borghese canvas is indeed far less frequent. In this case it not only alludes to Alexander’s conquests but more significantly aims to strengthen his image as a demigod, destined to victory from his very origins and achieving greatness on the battlefield.

Confirmation that the warrior represented here is Alexander the Great is provided by comparison with a painting of the same subject by Giulio Romano (Giulio Pippi), which evidently served as the model for our canvas. Painted in 1537-38, Giulio’s Alexander was probably commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, whom the artist served in those years. This work, from which several replicas and copies were made, is documented in the ducal collection in 1627; today it is held at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva (S. Lapenta, R. Morselli, Le collezioni Gonzaga. La quadreria nell’elenco dei beni del 1626-1627, Milan 2006, p. 149; Legrand 2008, pp. 27-47).

The existence of other versions which appear in 16th- and 17th-century Mantuan collections (Legrand 2008) attest to the popularity of this borrowed iconography. Regarding the work formerly in the Maffei collection, which was inspired by a medal from Antiquity, Vasari had this to say in the 1568 edition of the Lives: ‘In the possession of Count Niccola Maffei is a life-size picture of Alexander the Great, with a Victory in his hand, copied from an ancient medal – a work of great beauty’.

Comparison of Giulio Romano’s Alexander the Great with the Borghese canvas suggests that the latter underwent a slight reduction on its upper edge: indeed the decorative lion at the top of the helmet appears to have been cut.

The work has formed part of the Borghese Collection since at least 1790, when it was cited in the inventory of that year with this brief description: ‘A warrior, Cavalier d’Arpino’. The 1833 Inventario fidecommissario repeated the attribution to Cesari, which was also accepted by Piancastelli (1891, p. 362) and Venturi (1893, p. 214). Longhi (1928, p. 222, and 1967, p. 328), however, dissented from this view, proposing that the work should be connected to mid 16th-century northern Italian circles. His opinion received the support of De Rinaldis. For her part, Paola Della Pergola (1959, pp. 65-66, no. 95) recognised that on  stylistic grounds Longhi’s thesis had its strengths; at the same time, she deemed it wiser to stay with Cesari in light of the documentary evidence.

Subsequent critics have not taken up the question of the attribution. In this regard, we should mention that Herwarth Röttgen did not mention our canvas in his monographic studies of the artist (Il cavalier Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino. Un grande pittore nello splendore della fama e nell’incostanza della fortuna, Rome 2002): we must therefore assume that this scholar did not consider the work an autograph product of Cesari’s oeuvre.

As we wait for further research to put to rest the uncertainties surrounding the identity of the artist in question, we must recognise that the most persuasive attribution is that to Cavalier d’Arpino, given that the historic inventories name only him. If this thesis is correct, the painting can be roughly dated to the first half of the 17th century.

The Borghese canvas may have been directly inspired by Giulio’s painting, by one of the many versions deriving from it, or by a print of the same work. The northern Italian features of the work, which critics since Longhi (1928, 1967) have noted, can probably be explained by its thematic and compositional similarities to the series of eleven emperors commissioned to Titian around 1536 for the Ducal Palace of Mantua (which were destroyed in the 18th century); indeed Giulio Romano himself may have drawn inspiration from these for his own Alexander the Great.

At the end of the 1930s, the painting left the Galleria to embellish the villa of Marshal Badoglio; it returned to the Collection in 1945.  

Pier Ludovico Puddu




Bibliography
  • A. Manazzale, Itinerario di Roma, Roma 1817, p. 241.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 362.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 214.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 222.
  • A. De Rinaldis, Documenti inediti per la Storia della R. Galleria Borghese in Roma. III: Un Catalogo della Quadreria Borghese nel Palazzo a Campo Marzio redatto nel 1760, in “Archivi”, Ser. 2, anno IV, p. 221.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 65-66, n. 95.
  • R. Longhi, Saggi e Ricerche 1925-1928, Firenze 1967, I, p. 328.
  • 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. 152.
  • S. Legrand, L’Alexandre le Grand de Giulio Romano. Trois versions d’une «cosa molto bella», in “Genava. Revue d’Histoire de l’Art et d’Archeologie”, n. s., LVI, 2008, p. 27.