Of uncertain provenance, this painting appears in the Borghese documentation only beginning with the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833, where it is listed as a work by an unknown artist. Roberto Longhi was the first scholar to make the attribution to Gaspare Celio when he noted the signature in the lower right-hand corner of the composition: ‘GASPARE CELIO DEL HABITO DI CRISTO’. The reference to the painter’s membership in the Supreme Order of Christ aids us in establishing the date of the execution of the work, which certainly occurred after his investiture, which took place in 1613. The subject of the panel – the Battle of Furius Camillus – is made known by a second inscription on the standard depicted in the upper right-hand corner.
Salvator Rosa, 76 x 160.5 x 7.5 cm
Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 18, no. 40; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
The scene of this painting is the Battle of Furius Camillus, as is shown by the inscription on the standard in the upper right-hand corner: ‘S.P.Q.R./F. CAMIL./ R. DICTAT’. It is not possible, however, to establish which of the two famous battles led by the Roman general – one against the Gauls, the other against the Veientes – is represented here.
Of uncertain provenance, the work was only first mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in 1833, when it appeared in the Inventario Fidecommissario with this description: ‘A battle, by an unknown artist, 6 spans 3 inches wide, 2 ½ spans high’. At the time, the painter’s signature in the lower portion of the panel was probably not legible and remained so until the end of the century, when Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 168) proposed an attribution to Francesco Allegrini, a student of Cavalier d’Arpino. The inscription ‘GASPARE CELIO DEL HABITO DI CRISTO F…’ was first rediscovered by Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 209); it also provided critics with an indication of the date of the work, which was certainly after that of Celio’s investiture into the knightly order in 1613. A possible reference to the Battle could be contained in the artist’s memoirs, written in 1620 and published in 1638, in which he mentions several works painted for Cardinal Borghese, without specifying the subjects (Della Pergola 1959, p. 87; Melasecchi 1990, p. 290).
The panel depicts a night scene, illuminated only by the dim glare announcing the rising of the sun in the left portion of the background. The light of dawn is reflected on the figures in the foreground, which shows a group of knights engaged in battle. The two combatants in the centre constitute the focus of the composition: one dons a plumed helmet, while the other wears a faded red garment, as they fight hand-to-hand.
The large red banner behind them serves to capture the viewer’s gaze by providing a chromatic contrast with the dark tones of the background; this motif may allude to the lost cartoon of Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari (Stefani 2000, p. 383).
Beyond the foreground, the battle rages: soldiers exchange sword thrusts in a melee that extends toward the rear of the scene, which is composed of a hilly landscape whose tree-lined slopes blend into the sky. Both the dark backdrop and the long and narrow shape of the panel, along which the scene develops horizontally, are elements derived from Renaissance painting.
The work in question is a prime example of Celio’s role in establishing battle scenes as an independent pictorial genre. As shown by numerous ancient sarcophaguses as well as several paintings dating as far back as the 14th century, works in this genre were produced in celebratory, didactic or allegorical contexts, or simply as decorative elements. In these cases, however, representations did not follow set rules but were freely interpreted by painters. Only from the 17th century did the battle scene take on characteristics that made it into a proper genre: to begin with, the representation could be generic, not connected to a specific historic episode or even to a particular commission; rather it was conceived as a mass product with a merely decorative purpose. In addition, the structure of such paintings became increasingly canonical, with precise compositional guidelines that required scenes to become increasingly complex, rich in secondary episodes taking place on different planes (on this topic, see Zeri 1986, pp. IX-XXVII).
Celio’s panel indeed represents a point of transition in the development of these innovations: in this case, the scene refers to a specific historical episode; yet this is indicated only by means of a small detail, which is ultimately a fact of secondary importance compared to the representation of the battle as an independent motif. The artist was inspired by Cavalier d’Arpino’s Battle of Tullus Hostilius in Palazzo dei Conservatori on Capitoline Hill (1597): together with The Battle of the Milvian Bridge in the Vatican, this work was the archetype of the genre of battle scenes (Zeri 1986, pp. IX-X; Melasecchi 1990, pp. 290-291; Gandolfi 2018, pp. 132-133).
Pier Ludovico Puddu