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Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

Cesari Giuseppe called Cavalier d'Arpino

(Arpino 1568 - Rome 1640)

This small, oval-shaped work on copper came from the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. It is documented in 1650 as having been on display in the Villa in Porta Pinciana. The 1683 inventory shows that it was brought to Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio; during the course of the 18th century it was taken back to the Villa.

The composition revolves around the kneeling figure of the saint in the centre of the scene as he awaits his destiny. Two women, possibly Herodias and Salome, stand to his right, while three men appear to his left – the executioner in the act of unsheathing the sword and two other soldiers.

Object details

c. 1630
oil on copper
cm 35,4 x 26,2

Salvator Rosa, 46 x 35.3 x 5 cm


Collection of Scipione Borghese, ante 1650 (?) (first cited by Manilli 1650, p. 104); Inv. 1693, room XI. no. 139; Inv. 1790, room V, no. 11; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 39, no. 24; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1958 Alvaro Esposti


This small work on copper depicting the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is organised symmetrically: the kneeling saint occupies the foreground, waiting to be executed; the two women, who have been identified as Herodias and Salome, witness the scene from the left; and the executioner unsheathes his sword on the right, while two other soldiers of Herod stand behind him.

The provenance of this work is uncertain. Unlike other works by Cesari that form part of the Borghese Collection, it was not among those confiscated from the painter by Paul V’s fiscal police in 1607. It was first mentioned in Manilli’s guidebook to Villa Borghese (1650, p. 104), where it is described as ‘the small oval painting of John the Baptist about to be executed, by Cavalier Giuseppe’.

This reference suggests that the work entered the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese at an early date. In the next inventory, that of 1693, it is listed as ‘a oval painting of roughly one-and-a-half spans on copper with Saint John when they are about to cut off his head, no. 170, with a gilded frame, by Martiniani’. The correspondence of the dimensions, support material, format and description allows us to be certain that the work in question is referred to here; furthermore, the number 170 is visible in the lower left-hand corner. The only discordant element is the attribution to Martiniani, an unknown artist to whom several other paintings are ascribed in the same inventory, including another John the Baptist (which is in fact also by Cesari and also forms part of the Borghese Collection – inv. no. 229). Further confirmation that the work in question belonged to the family collection by this date is provided by the guidebook by De Sebastiani (1683, p. 25), which mentions a ‘John the Baptist, oval shaped, by D’Arpino’ in the Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio, to where the painting was evidently transferred sometime after the drafting of Manilli’s text.

Although the attribution to Cesari reappears in the inventories of the 18th and 19th centuries, several 20th critics cast doubt upon it in favour of a follower (Longhi 1928, p. 205; De Rinaldis 1937, p. 225). Yet Paola Della Pergola (1959, p. 64) catalogued the John the Baptist as an autograph work, further proposing that the influence of Caravaggio was evident here, in the particular in the rendering of the figure of the executioner and the projection of the light from the iron grating above. On this basis, the scholar suggested dating the work to after Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child with St. Anne and his Calling of Saint Matthew, that is, to the first decade of the 17th century.

Later critics have accepted this chronology, pointing to similarities between the work in question and Giovanni Baglione’s Judith and Holofernes (also in the Borghese Collection – inv. no. 15). Scholars have in fact noted specific details common to both works, namely the embroidery and precious stones adorning the garments and hair of the female figures, an element which would confirm the date proposed by Della Pergola.

On the other hand, Herwarth Röttgen, while accepting the attribution to Cesari, denied any type of Caravaggesque influence. On the basis of close comparison of the work with other paintings by the Cavalier d’Arpino, Röttgen dated it to roughly 1630.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 104.
  • P. de’ Sebastiani, Viaggio curioso de’ palazzi e ville più notabili di Roma, Roma 1683, p. 25.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 371.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 156.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I: La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 205.
  • 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, “Archivi” (III, IV), 1937, p. 225.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 64, n. 92.
  • P. Della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (III), “Arte Antica e Moderna”, n. 30, 1965, pp. 202-217,n. 649.
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 123.
  • H. Röttgen, Il Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari D’Arpino: un grande pittore nello splendore della fama e nell’incostanza della fortuna, Roma 2002, p. 462, n. 240.
  • 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. 102.