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Allegory of Sleep

Algardi Alessandro

(Bologna 1595 - Rome 1654)

The sculpture depicts the Allegory of Sleep, drawing inspiration from a Hellenistic motif which was well known in the 17th and 18th centuries and from which the attributes of the cupid derive: the butterfly wings, the poppy seed pods on his head and in his hands, and the sleeping dormouse by his side. Passeri recounted that in Rome it was believed that Alessandro Algardi was not able to sculpt marble (a material which was scarce in his hometown of Bologna) and that these rumours motivated him to try his hand at Lydian stone for the realisation of this work. The anecdote contains little in the way of truth, given that by the time of the execution of the Allegory Algardi had already received important commissions for works in marble; nonetheless, the tale accompanied this sculpture for centuries.

Rather than choosing this material to demonstrate his technical ability – and in any case the softness of the Belgian black marble used for this work proves that the accusation was not relevant – Algardi wished to use a stone that best corresponded to the ‘nocturnal’ subject.

Payment receipts show that Prince Marcantonio Borghese, Cardinale Scipione’s cousin and heir, commissioned the work to Algardi in 1635. The documentation further indicates that he also made drawings of two amphorae with serpentiform handles – carved in black marble by Silvio Calci – which in that period accompanied the sculpture.


Object details

cm 48 x 90

Marcantonio II Borghese, 1635 (Montagu 1985, p. 419); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 48, no. 102; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


  • 1999               Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
  • 2003-2004    Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 2018               Bologna, Museo Civico Medievale
  • 2019-2020    Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
  • 2020               Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 2017 C.B.C. Coop. a r.l.


Alessandro Algardi represents Sleep in this languid sculpture, whose subject has given himself up to slumber. The cupid is identifiable from his butterfly wings, the wreath of poppy seed pods around his body, the sprig of the same plant in his left hand and the dormouse curled up at his side. Inspired by a Hellenistic prototype which circulated widely during the 17th century, the sleeping putto lying softly on a sheet has the same iconographic attributes of ancient representations of the Greek Hypnos and Roman Somnus: the soundlessly batting wings (like the butterfly wings in our sculpture) and the poppy flowers brushed against the eyes of men to induce oblivion. Sleep was depicted as a boy in classical art, but in the Hellenistic period he took on the figure of a cupid, as was the case in the following centuries.

The commission to Algardi was arranged by Marcello Provenzale, the mosaicist who was likewise from Bologna and who had already worked for Scipione Borghese. Two receipts for payments made to the sculptor, dated 1635 and 1636, cite a ‘work of a cupid in Lydian stone’; they were signed by Marcantonio Borghese, cousin and heir of Cardinal Scipione, who had died two years before (Montagu 1985, p. 419).

The biographer Giovanni Battista Passeri alleged that Algardi sculpted the work in Belgian black marble (which he erroneously indicated as Lydian stone, a material that is known for being particularly difficult to work) in order to dispel the rumour that he was incapable of sculpting marble: ‘To put paid to this affront, he made a slumbering cupid who represents Sleep in Lydian stone. The figure is slightly larger than real and is so well designed and sculpted that it solicited only applause and praise from everyone’ (1772, p. 200).

Black marble was also chosen to highlight the meaning of the allegory: as Cesare Ripa wrote in the Iconologia, black is in fact the third phase of night and is accompanied by a dormouse, which we see here curled up next to the cupid. While the work generally expresses pleasure, it also conveys a sense of ambiguity and languor in the total surrender of the sleeping subject, who holds the pods full of opium.

Algardi also designed two amphorae, which were carved in black marble by Silvio Calci and which during that period accompanied the sculpture; they also form part of the Borghese Collection (inv. no. CCXIX). In the context of their placement next to Sleep, in the 18th century the archaeologist Montfaucon believed that the vases were also attributes of the personification, in that they contained sleep-inducing substances (1722, I, 2, p. 362).

The Allegory of Sleep is a telling example of Algardi’s oeuvre, which is characterised by a classicism mitigated by a taste for the natural and by moderate Baroque elements. His style is quite different from that of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who dominated the landscape of sculpture, especially during the pontificate of Innocent X: the pope in fact favoured Bernini over other sculptors, commissioning him prestigious works.

Nonetheless, the importance of our work was recognised immediately, a fact attested to not only by the praise lavished upon it in an ode by Scipione della Staffa, published in Perugia in 1643, but also by the wide circulation of the subject: the Galleria Spada holds a copy in white marble, in which the cupid lies in a wooden cradle, while two imitations with slight variations by Jacques van der Bogaert are conserved in Boston and Hamburg (Montagu 1999, pp. 118).

On the occasion of the project to redecorate Villa Pinciana and reorganise the collections – overseen by Antonio Asprucci in the late 18th century – the Sleep was placed in the Gladiator Room on the ground floor. During the 19th century, it was first moved to room III and then to the gallery on the first floor. Currently it is displayed in room XV, where it has been reunited with the vases by Silvio Calci.

The sculpture contains a fracture at the level of the figure’s left shoulder, which passes through the entire piece of marble. The defect apparently dates to an early period; it was repaired with a metal clip fastened below the cupid’s back.