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Luteri Giovanni called Dosso Dossi

(Tramuschio? 1487 ca - Ferrara 1542)

The foreground is dominated by the figure of Apollo, crowned with laurel, as he raises his right hand, lifting the bow from the lyra da braccio, which still rests on his shoulder.

The subject, which draws on the myth of Apollo and Daphne, is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses (I, 452-467). After having killed the monster Python, Apollo boasts about it to Cupid, mocking him for carrying a bow and arrow, unsuitable weapons for a child. Cupid takes his revenge by piercing Apollo with his arrows and arousing love in Apollo and the rejection of that love by the beautiful nymph Daphne: Apollo pursues her but the maiden pleads with her father, the river god Peneus, to release her from the body that arouses men's admiration. Daphne, barely visible in the background on the left, is being transformed into a laurel tree.

The figure of Apollo is very classical in style, emphasising the reference to the Belvedere Torso and the similarities with the painting of Raphael and Michelangelo.

The Apollo by Dosso, after various vicissitudes, finally became part of the Borghese collection in 1659, through the bequest of Luigi Capponi. The artist, who worked at the court of Alfonso d'Este in Ferrara, had probably created the painting on the occasion of the marriage between the duke and Laura Dianti, which took place after the death of his wife Lucrezia Borgia.

Object details

1525 circa
oil on canvas
cm 191 x 116


Probably the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese from 1607 (documented in the collection in 1612, Della Pergola 1955, p. 30); collection of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (inventories 1623, no. 205 and 1633, no. 24); collection of Cardinal Luigi Capponi; Borghese collection from 1659 (Schütze, in Coliva 1994; Fumagalli 2007). Recorded in the collection inventories of 1693 (Room II, no. 61); c. 1790 (Room I; here attributed to Caravaggio); 1854 (Room I, n. 34). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 14. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

  • 1933 Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti
  • 1935 Parigi, Petit Palais
  • 1985 Roma, Museo di Palazzo Venezia
  • 1998-1999 Monaco di Baviera, Staatlichen Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München; Roma, Monumenti, Musei e Gallerie Pontificie
  • 1999 Aix en Provence, Musée Granet
  • 2000-2001 Roma, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
  • 2003-2004 Atene, National Gallery - Alexandros Soutzos Museum
  • 2014 Trento, Castello del Buonconsiglio
  • 2023 Roma, Galleria Borghese
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1914, T. Venturini Papari
  • 1945, C. Matteucci
  • 1950, C. Matteucci e D. Podio
  • 1980, G. Colalucci
  • 1993, Marcone/Sannucci (conservation report)
  • 1995, CBC (diagnostics)


The Apollo by Dosso, generally dated around 1525, became part of the Borghese collection in 1659 through the bequest of Luigi Capponi, as a sign of tribute to the family of Pope Paul V, who had elected him to be a cardinal in 1608. The work had probably already been part of the collection previously, following the acquisition of a group of paintings at the Este Castle in Ferrara. It may then have been sent by Marquis Enzo Bentivoglio to Scipione Borghese in 1607, as some documentary traces seem to confirm: in fact, a note of payment records that a new frame was provided for the “portrait of Orpheus” by Dossi in 1612 (Della Pergola 1959, p. 30).

Later, the work passed into the collection of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, and is mentioned in his inventories in 1623 (no. 205) and 1633 (no. 24). The possibility that it may have been donated to Ludovisi by Scipione himself is not to be ruled out. Around 1621, he had made the grandiose tribute to the cardinal by presenting him with Bernini's (according to a hypothesis by Kristina Herrmann Fiore published in Humfrey 1998, p. 176, no. 7). The painting later belonged to Cardinal Luigi Capponi and, through his bequest, returned to the Borghese collection in 1659 (Schütze, in Coliva 1994; Fumagalli 2007).

The artist, who worked at the court of Alfonso d'Este in Ferrara, probably produced the painting on the occasion of the marriage between the duke and Laura Dianti. It was possibly intended for his Palazzina della Rosa; the relationship had begun after the death of Alfonso's wife, Lucrezia Borgia, in 1519. This hypothesis was put forward in relation to the iconographic theme of the work. It is well known that the god of harmony and the sun were worshipped by the duke and his new companion. Moreover, an immediate allusion to the name of Laura is provided by the laurel into which the nymph, who was so loved by Apollo, is transformed. From then on, that same laurel would circle the god's head. Apollo would then become the figure of Alfonso; moreover, the duke's ability to play the lyra da braccio is well known (Trinchieri Camiz 1983), the same instrument that the god is playing in this painting. The figure of Apollo is very classical in style, making immediate reference to the Belvedere Torso. There are significant similarities with Raphael's painting and specifically with the Apollo in the Parnassus, also holding a lyra da braccio like Dosso's. There are also similarities with Michelangelo's “Ignudi” or male nudes in the Sistine chapel, for which the famous torso was a primary ancient reference model. In addition to the Roman models, which the artist might have seen in person on a possible trip to Rome, there is another iconographic source for the depiction of the god in a static position, seated on a boulder, in a pseudo-antique gemstone found in Venice in the Palazzo Grimani (Farinella 2014). In this famous gem, popularised in print in the mid-16th century, the god, having left his cithara, appears to be in the act of embracing Daphne, who is already turning into a laurel tree.

The canvas is distinguished by the rich colour and luminism that characterises the striking background landscape as well as the stormy sky and figure of the god. The male torso is depicted with a sensitive naturalism, highlighted by the deep contrast of shadows and light: a light source to the side determines the shadows cast by the instrument on the chest and shoulder, while the face, flank and drapery are in full light, standing out against the dark outline of the mountain.

The subject draws inspiration from Ovid's Metamorphoses (I, 452-467). Apollo, after having killed Python, the monstrous serpent who ruled the world in chaos, boasts to Cupid and mocks him for carrying a bow and arrows, deeming it unsuitable for a child to use those weapons. Cupid takes revenge, striking Apollo with an arrow of gold, the noble metal that sparks eternal love. He strikes the nymph Daphne with a blunted arrow that has a leaden core, which arouses a repulsion for love in her. This compels the nymph to flee at the sight of Apollo, but he pursues her, trying to convince her by boasting about his qualities. A moment before she is captured, Daphne implores her father Peneus, the river god, to change her features that others find too pleasing. She is then transformed into a laurel tree.

Dosso reworks the content of the myth, translating it into an original iconography. The painter depicts Apollo as a musician, in a concert that has just been interrupted: the god has finished his song and lifted the bow from his instrument; he is already wearing the laurel wreath in memory of his beloved. Generally interpreted as a lament for not having joined Daphne, of which there is no mention in the sources, more recently (Farinella 2014), some consider it to be a love song for Daphne. However, a love concert for the nymph does not appear at all in the mythical story, although Apollo, in order to win favour with the nymph and persuade her to give in to him with words and arguments, lists music and song amongst his skills. These two moments are rarely combined in the figurative sources, although in a few examples, Apollo is shown playing as Daphne is transformed, as in a print from Giovanni Andrea dell'Anguillara's Metamorphoses (1584).

Other scholars have explored the possibility of an allegorical value to the theme, related to the influence of the work of the humanist Mario Equicola (Del Bravo 1994) and therefore the idea of music and poetry personified by the god as a reflection of the harmony of the universe; or again with reference to the interpretation of the myth of Apollo and Daphne given in Leone Ebreo’s Dialogues of Love (Gentili 1980), a vastly influential work which emphasises the cosmic significance of love, in a natural philosophy that envisages the harmonious relationship between the superior, astral world and the terrestrial world.

The humanistic and 16th-century philosophy of love has an important cultural value in identifying the work's context of origin, as well as understanding its destination.  What seems to be represented in this extraordinary vision is the instant of an ecstasy cut short by the rejection of love, the cause of the end to an amorous union. Perhaps it is a warning to seek rather than shy away from physical love; because Daphne rejected the god's seduction, she appears far away, in the background, as she turns into a tree.

Simona Ciofetta

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