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Boy with a Duck

Roman art, copy after hellenistic original

This work is one of numerous Roman copies, datable to the second century CE, after Hellenistic originals. It depicts a boy sitting on the ground and holding a duck to his chest. The archetype seems to be the sculpture of a boy choking a goose that Pliny attributed to Boethos, here in a more gentle and playful iteration.

The sculpture, already known in the middle of the sixteenth century from a drawing by Pirro Ligorio, originally decorated a fountain in the garden of Cardinal Carpi on the Quirinal Hill. Interpreted in various ways over the centuries, it was recently linked to the Egyptian cults, identifying the boy as the god Horus, also known as Harpocrates, son of Isis.

Object details

II secolo d.C.
white Luni marble
height 50 cm ; width 59 cm; height of the head 23 cm

Collection of Cardinal Carpi, cited for the first time by Pirro Ligorio in the middle of the sixteenth century (Reinach, Aldrovandi 1902, p. 128, pl. 53); Borghese Collection, cited for the first time by Manilli in 1650 (p. 73). Inventario fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 45, no. 57. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 19th century: work on the nose, the edge of the right and left ears, left forearm with the hand and the duck’s head, the foot up to the heel and the edge of the plinth.


This young nude boy is portrayed sitting on the ground, with his left leg stretched out and foot pointing up and his right leg folded in front of him. His holds a duck against his chest with his right arm and grasps the animal’s neck with his left hand. His body has the full forms typical of early childhood. His head is tipped up to the left, and his hair falls in curls to his temples and in front of his ears. A braid falls from the crown of his head to his right shoulder. His smiling mouth is partially open and his has chubby cheeks and a prominent chin.

Pirro Ligorio reports that the sculpture and one similar to it decorated a fountain in the garden of Cardinal Carpi on the Quirinal Hill in Rome, in the middle of the sixteenth century (Reinach, Aldrovandi 1902, p. 128, pl. 53). In 1556, it was described in the same place by Ulisse Aldrovandi: ‘on the sides of the fountain there are two nude putti holding two water birds, which have water flowing out of their mouths: both putti are smiling and look at the nymph … And both have their hair bound behind their heads above the shoulders’ (Aldrovandi 1556, p. 299). Later, between 1572 and 1577, the work was depicted in a drawing by Pierre Jacques, in which the animal is in a different pose, probably from a restoration, with its neck stretching forward (Reinach 1902, p. 128, pl. 53). In 1650, Iacomo Manilli reported that there was a statuette of a ‘boy holding a duck in his hand’ on a small porphyry column in Room 4 and, in 1700, Domenico Montelatici described a ‘Leda with Jove in her arms in the guise of a Swan’ (Manilli 1650, p. 73; Montelatici 1700, p. 231). In the inventory of 1762, it is listed as a ‘putto, called Leda, holding a little bird’ (p. 51), while it is described in the Inventario fidecommissario Borghese of 1833 as a ‘putto sitting on an Oriental red granite rock’ (p. 45, no. 57). In 1828, in the Nomenclatura of the Galleria Borghese’s ancient statuary drawn up, after the massive sale to Napoleon, by Antonio D’Este and Massimiliano Laboureur, at the suggestion of Giuseppe Gozzani, the sculpture is reported in its current location, Room 3, on a ‘modern decorated tripod’ (Moreno 1975-1976, p. 46: Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, b. 348, fasc. 33).

The work is a Roman copy, datable to the second century CE, of a Hellenistic archetype portraying a boy with a bird. Pliny attributed a sculpture group of a putto choking a goose, which might be the original model for the numerous Roman copies, to the sculptor Boethos, who was active between the third and second centuries BCE (Nat. Hist., 24.84; Laurenzi 1959, pp. 118–120).

The Borghese statue has been studied by various scholars researching Hellenistic sculpture. In 1903, Walter Amelung noted a strong affinity with a head of a smiling boy in the Vatican Museum (Amelung 1903, p. 444, no. 194). That same year, Rudolf Herzog, studying a sculpture unearthed in Ephesus and preserved in Vienna, found that there is an air of veiled violence in the encounter between child and animal in some of the Roman copies (like the ones in the Vatican Museum and the Capitoline Museum) and a feeling of childlike playfulness in others, like the Borghese statue (Herzog 1903, pp. 215–236). This distinction was also noted by Helbig, who further observed a note of humorous realism, seeing the child’s pose as a sweet attempt to protect the animal (Helbig 1913, p. 244, no. 1550). In 1957, Raissa Calza argued that the Borghese sculpture has a votive or funerary meaning (Calza 1957, 1957, p. 11, no. 83).

The interpretation of the sculpture was then given a significant boost in 1970, when a statue of a boy and a goose very similar to the Borghese group was unearthed in the Villa Poppea at Oplontis Stefano De Caro, who studied the sculptures found in the villa, succeeded in clearly distinguishing the Capitoline/Munich type, where the child chokes a bird, linked to the sculpture described by Pliny, from the Oplontis/Borghese type, where the child playfully holds the animal to his chest. There is another exemplar of this type, albeit heavily reworked, in the Hermitage Museum (Waldhauer 1931, no. 197, pl. 50). De Caro also suggested various possible interpretations of the figure, including its identification, based primarily on aesthetic aspects, with Horus/Harpocrates, son of Isis in Ancient Egyptian religion (De Caro 1976, pp. 187–198), a theory supported by later scholars (Moreno 2000, p. 106, no. 2).

Giulia Ciccarello

  • U. Aldrovandi, Memorie della Raccolta delle statue di Roma d’Ulisse Aldrovandi stampata nell’anno 1556, in “Miscellanea filologica, critica e antiquaria”, I, a cura di C. Fea, Roma 1790, p. 299.
  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 73.
  • D. Montelatici, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana con l’ornamenti che si osservano nel di lei Palazzo, Roma 1700, p. 231.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 15, n. 2.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 917, n. 2.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), p. 18, n. 2.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p.30.
  • S. Reinach, U. Aldrovandi, L’album de Pierre Jacques, sculpteur de Reims, dessiné à Rome de 1572 à 1577, Paris 1902, p. 128, tav. 53 (disegno di Pierre Jacques).
  • W. Amelung, Die sculpturen des Vaticanische Museum, I, Berlin 1903, p. 444, n. 194.
  • R. Herzog, Das Kind mit der Fuchsgans, in Jahreshefte des Österreichischen Archäologischen Institutes in Wien, VI, 1903, pp. 215-236, fig. 128.
  • G. Giusti, The Borghese Gallery and the Villa Umberto I in Rome, Roma 1904, p. 36.
  • W. Helbig, Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, II, Leipzig 1913, p. 244, n. 1550.
  • C. Hülsen, Römische Antikengärten des XVI Jahrhunderts, Heidelberg 1917, p. 58, n. 28, 29.
  • H. Klein, Vom antiken Rokoko, Wien 1921, p. 27.
  • H. B. Walters, Catalogue of the silver Plates (Greek, Etruscan and Roman) in the British Museum, London 1921, p. 3, n. 7.
  • O. Waldhauer, Die Antiken Skulpturen des Ermitage, II, 1931, n. 197, tav. 50.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione), Roma 1954, p. 12.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 11, n. 83.
  • V. von Gonzenbach, Untersuchungen zu den Knabenweihen, Bonn 1957, p. 29, n. 58.
  • L. Laurenzi, s.v. Boethos 1, in “Enciclopedia dell’Arte Antica”, II, Roma 1959, pp. 118-120.
  • E. Mandoswsky, C. Mitchell, Pirro Ligorio’s roman Antiquities: the drawings in MS XIII. B.7 in the National Library in Naples, London1963, pp. 84-85, n. 34b.
  • W. Helbig, H. Speier, Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, (4°Edizione), a cura di H.Speier, II, Tübingen 1966, p.725, n.1965.
  • P. Moreno, Formazione della raccolta del Museo e Galleria Borghese, in “Colloqui del Sodalizio“, 5, 1975-1976, pp. 131-132.
  • S. De Caro, Sculture dalla Villa di Poppea in Oplontis, in “Cronache Pompeiane”, Volume 2, 1976, pp. 187-198.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 15.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p. 100, fig.a p. 85.
  • K.Kalveram, Die Antikensammlung des Kardinals Scipione Borghese, in “Römische Studien der Bibliotheca Hertziana”, 11, Worm am Rehin, 1995, p. 195, n. 73.
  • L. Spiegler, The Amethyst Road, New York 1995, pp. 444, 749, n. 194.
  • P. Moreno, Le sculture antiche nella Stanza di Apollo e Dafne, in Apollo e Dafne del Bernini nella Galleria Borghese, a cura di K.Herrmann Fiore, Milano 1997, pp. 46, 58, fig. 9.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 106, n. 2.
  • P. Moreno, A.Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp. 188-189, n.167.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008389, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020