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Bust of Scipione Borghese

Bernini Gian Lorenzo

(Naples 1598 - Rome 1680)

This bust was executed in record time to replace another portrait of Scipione Borghese, which could not be presented to the cardinal because of a defect in the marble that became apparent when the work was finished. Yet this bust is only apparently identical to the first. While both sculptures capture the subject in the immediacy of a conversation, the expression of his face is less absorbed here and his shoulders are squarer. His mozzetta, meanwhile, shows fewer wrinkles and hides his neck; toward the lower edge, it is crossed by a horizontal fold which separates the last pair of buttons. Finally, the polishing of this sculpture is more uniform compared to the first.

The two biographers closest to Bernini have left us different accounts of the episode. Baldinucci wrote that Gian Lorenzo first presented the damaged sculpture to Scipione, ‘who was inwardly upset but didn’t let on, so as not to cause trouble with Bernini’; then the sculptor surprised the cardinal with the ‘flawless’ replica (Baldinucci 1682, p. 7). By contrast, Domenico Bernini narrated that the second bust was brought to Scipione, ‘who easily recognised by a certain something in the more lively expression that this was not the figure he had seen several days before’; he asked the sculptor for an explanation and in the end made him hand over the first portrait as well’ (Bernini 1713, p. 11).

Object details

altezza cm 78

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632 (Hibbard, 1961, pp. 101, 105); purchased by Italian state, 1892.

  • 1935 - Parigi, Petit Palais
  • 1998 - Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 1999 - Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2008 - Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
  • 2008-2009 - Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada
  • 2009 - Firenze, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
  • 2014-2015 - Madrid, Museo del Prado
  • 2017-2018 - Roma, Galleria Borghese
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1911
  • 1997 C.B.C. Coop. a.r


This portrait of Scipione Borghese is one of the works that most contributed to the making of the legend that Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a sculptor of exceptional technical ability, as is revealed by the earliest of our sources. Filippo Baldinucci (1682, p. 7) narrates that during the final polishing phase of the work an imperfection in the marble block was noticed, a ‘hair’ – that is, a crack – that passed through the cardinal’s forehead, rendering the sculpture unpresentable. The artist then replicated the bust, realising the present work in record time: over the course of 15 nights, according to Baldinucci, or in only three days, if we are to believe Bernini’s son Domenico (Bernini 1713, p. 10). The anecdote is no doubt suggestive and was destined to become the basis for the myth of Bernini’s virtuosity.

The importance of the figure who commissioned the work – Scipione was Paul V’s powerful cardinal-nephew from 1605 to 1621 as well as an extremely wealthy collector and patron – justified the necessity of quickly remedying the defect. The embarrassing circumstance is probably explained by the fact that Bernini was not in the habit of selecting the marble blocks to be sculpted himself: in his mind, the work of a sculptor consisted in skilfully and ingeniously moulding the material, whatever it might be. In the portrait of Scipione, the artist gives yet another proof of his proverbial fluidity in working marble, managing to render the tactile sensation of the cardinal’s skin together with the shimmering colour of the silk of the mozzetta, whose folds seem to create moiré patterns.

The bust also indicates a turning point in Bernini’s style in portraiture: probably influenced by the contemporary painting of Rubens and Van Dyck, he introduces the motif of the interrupted conversation by positioning the face just slightly to the right and leaving the mouth just open. The effect enriches the representation with a suggestion of intimacy. Defined as ‘talking portraits’ (Brauer, Wittkower 1931, p. 29ff.), his busts capture his subjects in movement. Bernini indeed came to the realisation that the most effective way of rendering the individuality of the subject was to represent him in a passing moment rather than meticulously reproducing his face in a pose.

A cursory glance at the two works gives the impression that they are identical; yet several details distinguish them. Compared to the first portrait, the shoulders here are less rounded, while the lower part of the mozzetta shows a horizontal fold that crosses between the last pair of buttons. In addition, this bust reveals more uniform polishing. Interestingly, in this case as well the marble betrays a slight crack that begins in the lower right portion of the mozzetta, crosses through the centre and reaches the upper left.

The portrait was displayed in the gallery of the Villa on the first floor, in a less prestigious position with respect to that of the first version, which embellished the Room on the Emperors on the ground floor. Present in the Portrait Room in 1802, the work was purchased by the Italian state in 1892 on the occasion of the first sale of Borghese works. The pair of sculptures were then held at the Accademia in Venice before returning to Villa Pinciana in 1908.

Sonja Felici

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  • Scheda di catalogo12/01008680, Russo L.,1981; aggiornamento Felici S., 2020