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Boy with thorn

roman school

A naked boy has sat down to remove a thorn from his left foot, which he rests on his left leg. With this left hand he holds up the sole of his foot. The undeveloped musculature of his lean and supple body reveals his very young age. Bending forwards, he fixes his gaze on his foot, totally absorbed in what he is doing. The figure represents the legendary shepherd Marcius (‘the faithful’), a messenger of the Roman army. The work is a slightly larger copy in marble of the famous bronze Spinario (Boy with Thorn) held at the Musei Capitolini. The sculpture in question was purchased by Giovanni Battista Borghese in 1608. The name of the sculptor is not known; the work was perhaps executed at the end of the 16th century.

Object details

before 1608
height 85 cm

Purchased by Giovanni Battista Borghese, 1608; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 50, no. 131; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 2000-2001    Parigi, Musée du Louvre
  • 2003-2004    Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 2008              Roma, Museo del Corso
  • 2012               Roma, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo
  • 2014               Roma, Musei Capitolini
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1997 Patrizi Maria Gigliola
  • 1966 Minguzzi Tito


The sculpture represents the legendary figure Marcius (‘the faithful’), a boy who lived in the 4th century BC. During the war against Veii, he was ordered to run to Rome to warn the city of an imminent Etruscan attack. He carried out his mission, running barefoot and ignoring the fact that he had a thorn in his foot. The naked boy is seated on a rock and is in fact depicted in the act of removing the thorn from his left foot, which he rests on his right knee. Considered an example of heroism, the figure was depicted in several works during antiquity, the most famous of which is the bronze held at the Musei Capitolini: this is an eclectic sculpture, probably executed in the 1st century BC by blending a body deriving from Hellenistic models of the 3rd-2nd centuries BC with a head inspired by Greek works of the 5th century BC.

The sculpture in question is a copy of the Spinario, as we see from the same style of hair and the rendering of the subject’s posture, which is more consistent with that of a standing person. On the other hand, our work shows certain differences with respect to the prototype: the dimensions are slightly larger than those of the original; the boy’s groin is covered by a leaf, such that he is no longer completely naked; and the base on which he is seated – a rough, ‘unfinished’ rock – replaces the more elaborate stone of the Spinario (Fiore 2008, p. 10, cat. 35). The 1765 inventory cites the work as resting on a wooden support made to appear like marble, which has gone last.

The sculpture was purchased for Cardinal Scipione by Giovanni Battista Borghese from the heirs of Girolamo Pichi in 1608 for the considerable sum of 300 scudi (Vatican Secret Archive, Borghese Archive, 7925, ‘Registro dei Mandati’, 1607-1607; 12 ‘Riscontro del Banco’, 1607-1613, p. 57). The significant amount of the transaction was perhaps due to the fact that the work was erroneously believed to be an ancient sculpture (Gaborit 2000, p. 153, cat. 5).

The purchase date represents a certain terminus ante quem for that of the execution of the work. In any case, the figure’s slim figure and roughly defined hair and locks – typical, respectively, of 15th- and late 16th-century sculpture – suggest that it was realised at the end of the 1500s (Faldi 1954, p. 12; Barchiesi 2004, p. 158).

Beginning with Manilli, the sculpture was documented in the Room of the Graces on the first floor (1650, p. 108). Later, Lamberti and Visconti note it as occupying the Gladiator Room (1796, pp. 56-57), where it was displayed as the pendant of the Young Brunette with Boy and Dog. While Venturi saw the sculpture in the Hermaphrodite Room (1895, p. 37), in 2000 it was placed in the passageway between Rooms 15 and 16 (Moreno, Stefani, p. 335). In 1673, Giovanni Michele Silos dedicated an epigram in Latin to the work (p. 249, no. CLXVIII).

   Sonja Felici