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Asclepius (head not original) with Telesphoros

Roman art

This sculptural group depicts Asclepius, who rests his weight on his left leg while his right leg is bent, and a smaller-scale figure of Telesphoros. Asclepius is wearing a himation that leaves his chest and right arm bare and the end of which is draped over his bent left arm. His right hand rests on a club with a serpent winding around it, and he holds small bowl in his left. His head, which is believed to be ancient but not original, is turned slightly to the right and framed by thick locks of hair and a luxuriant beard. The small figure of Telesphoros to the left of Asclepius and set on a round plinth is in a rigidly frontal pose and was added at a later date. He wears a generous mantle called a cucullus that covers his head and leaves his bare feet exposed.

The group decorated the oval fountain found along path four in enclosure one, where it was noted until 1700 by Domenico Montelatici. In 1893, Adolfo Venturi reported it in its current location. The numerous sculptures of Asclepius that were carved during the Imperial Period, including the Borghese statue, stand out for their uniformity, with only slight variations in pose and drapery. Based on stylistic analysis and comparison with other works, the Borghese sculpture can be dated to the second century CE.

Object details

II secolo d.C.
white marble
height without plinth 132 cm; height of the head 22 cm; height of Telesphoros 51 cm

Borghese Collection (cited for the first time in Manilli 1650, p. 11); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 51, no. 149. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 19th century Work on the right arm with the club and the snake (only the lowest part is ancient), the left forearm with part of the drapery, the hand and the bowl. The neck and the head are ancient but not original. Work on the head of Telesphoros, in marble; the drapery in plaster flakes; the back and the point where the torso and neck meet.
  • 1996–1998 Liana Persichelli


Iacomo Manilli, and Domenico Montelatici both report, in 1650 and 1700 respectively, the sculpture group on path four of enclosure one, where it decorated the oval-shaped fountain (Manilli 1650, p. 11; Montelatici 1700, p. 23). In 1832, Antonio Nibby saw it in Room 4, known as the ‘Gladiator’s Room’, and, in 1893, Adolfo Venturi recorded it in its current location (Nibby 1832, p. 115, no. 7; Venturi 1893, p. 42).

The sculptural group comprises Asclepius, resting his weight on his left leg, with his right leg slightly bent, and a smaller-scale figure of Telesphoros. The god wears a himation that, covering his left shoulder and leaving his right shoulder and chest bare, is loosely pulled across his body and draped over his left arm. His right arm hangs down alongside his body and his right hand rests on a club with a snake wrapped around it in a spiral. His left arm is bent and his left hand holds a small bowl. He wears a kind of sandal called a crepida that is fastened to the foot with leather ties. The head, considered ancient but not original (Moreno, Viacava 2003, p. 230, no. 217), is slightly turned to the right. The face is entirely framed by the thick head of well-defined curls, beard and luxuriant moustache. The solemn expression, with closed lips and prominent eyebrows, perfectly expresses the divine nature of the figure. The small-scale figure to the left of Asclepius is considered by Paolo Moreno to be a later addition (Moreno, Viacava 2003, p. 230, no. 217).

The young divinity, portrayed in a frontal pose on a circular marble base, can be identified as Telesphoros, Asclepius’s son or assistant. He wears a generous mantle called a cucullus that is raised up a bit by the figure’s bent arms, which are entirely covered by the garment, revealing his bare feet.

In terms of etymology, Telesphoros means ‘bringer of completion’ (Rühfel 1994, p. 870), which has a salutary meaning when referring to healing; an inauspicious one when linked to death.

The main sanctuary of Asclepius, venerated as the protector of medicine, was in Epidaurus, Thessaly. We read in Livy that, during a plague in 293 BCE, the Romans sent a legation to the Greek city to bring the sacred serpent, signum Aesculapii, back to Rome as a remedy for the epidemic. While travelling up the Tiber River, the snake sneaked off the boat and hid on the Tiber Island, thus choosing that spot as the site for the god’s sanctuary (Livy, History of Rome, with supplements by Johann Freinsheim, 11.12-13). Ovid continues the story, reporting that he then, ‘resuming his divine form, made an end to grief, and came as a health-giver to the city’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.742–744). People were healed in Asclepius’s ambulatories through incubation: spending the night there, the sick could hope to see the god in their dreams and discover the remedy for their illnesses (Guarducci 1971, pp. 267–281).

The composition of the Borghese group and the rendering of the god’s features share similarities with another in the Louvre (Martinez 2004, pp. 74–75, no. 1020) of the ‘Amelung’ type (Sirano 1994, pp. 199–232), and a colossal version in the Uffizi, of the ‘Florence’ type (Holtzmann 1984, p. 878, no. 145). The Borghese Asclepius, like the other two just mentioned, is Roman and can be dated to the second century CE. It was inspired by a Greek original from the fifth century BCE. The bearded head, while not original, fits within the iconographic tradition for the god, in particular the ‘Albani’ type, with a strong chiaroscuro effect in the lively, unruly hair and beard, like the exemplar in the Louvre (Holtzmann 1984, p. 883, pl. 655, no. 257; Martinez 2010, p. 79).

Giulia Ciccarello

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p.11.
  • D. Montelatici, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana con l’ornamenti che si osservano nel di lei Palazzo, Roma 1700, p.23.
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, pp.115, n. 7.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 22, n. 15.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 922, n. 15.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), p. 25, n. 15.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 42.
  • G. Giusti, La Galerie Borghèse et la Ville Humbert Premier à Rome, Roma 1904, p. 31.
  • G. Lippold, Photographische Einzel auf nahmen antike Sculpturen, X, 1, München 1925, p. 5, n. 2760.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione) Roma 1954, p.18.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, pp. 8-9, nn. 31-32.
  • W. Helbig, H. Speier, Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, (4°Edizione), a cura di H. Speier, II, Tübingen 1966, p. 737, n. 1983 (Von Steuben).
  • B. M. Felletti Maj, s.v. Telesforo, in “Enciclopedia dell’Arte Antica, classica e orientale”, VII, 1966, pp.674-675, in particolare p. 674.
  • M. Guarducci, L’isola Tiberina e la sua tradizione ospitaliera, in “Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. Classe di Scienze morali, storiche e filosofiche”, a. VIII, v. XXVI, 1971, pp. 267-281.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 19.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p. 101,fig. a p. 87.
  • B. Holtzmann, s.v. Asklépios, in “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae”, II, Zürich 1984, pp. 863-897.
  • M. Fuchs, Glyptothek München, Katalog der Skulpturen, VI, Römische Idealplastik, München 1992, p. 174, n. 8.
  • H.Rühfel, s.v. Telesphoros, in “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae” VII, 1994, pp. 870-878, in particolare p. 873, n. 39.
  • F. Sirano, Sull’Asclepio del tipo “Nea Paphos”: ipotesi su un gruppo di sculture di era imperiale, in “Archeologia Classica”, Vol. 46, 1994, pp. 199-232.
  • K.Kalveram, Die Antiken sammlung des Kardinals Scipione Borghese, in “Römische Studien der Bibliotheca Hertziana”, 11, 1995, p. 252, n. 178.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 163, n. 13a-b.
  • P. Moreno, A.Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, p. 230, n. 217.
  • J.L. Martinez, Les antiques du Musée Napoléon. Edition illustrée et commentée des volumes V et VI de l’inventaire du Louvre en 1810, Paris, RMN, 2004.
  • G.H. Renberg, Public and Private Places of Worship in the Cult of Asclepius at Rome, in “Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome”, Voll. 51/52 (2006/2007), pp. 87-172.
  • J.L. Martinez, La Grèce au Louvre, Paris 2010.
  • Schede di catalogo 12/01008485, 12/01008486 P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020