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Bust of Scipione Borghese

Bernini Gian Lorenzo

(Naples 1598 - Rome 1680)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpted this portrait of Scipione Borghese in 1632. His head is turned somewhat to the observer’s left and his mouth slightly open, as if someone had interrupted him during a conversation.

The choice of lending the representation an intimate character – while still respecting ‘official’ canons – marked a stylistic and formal turning point in the sculptor’s production of busts. The first of Bernini’s ‘talking portraits’, this bust stands out for its deep psychological impact and powerful expressive force.

A crack which opened along the cardinal’s forehead when Bernini had just about concluded the work forced him to produce a replica in great haste – over the course of 15 nights, according to Filippo Baldinucci, or in only three days if we are to believe his son Domenico. In either case, the episode is further proof of the sculptor’s unbelievable virtuosity.

Object details

Carrara marble
height 77.2 cm

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632; purchased by Italian state, 1892.

  • 1930               Roma, Istituto di Studi Romani
  • 1998               Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 1999               Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2017-2018     Roma, Galleria Borghese
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1911 M. Eugenio
  • 1997 C.B.C. Coop. a.r.l.


Scipione Caffarelli Borghese was the son of Ortensia Borghese, Pope Paul V’s sister, and Francesco Caffarelli. He was adopted by his uncle Camillo just two months after his election to the papal throne. For the entire duration of his uncle’s pontificate, Scipione held offices of great responsibility and power: head of the Consulta, Secretary of Briefs, Grand Penitentiary, Chamberlain, and Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, to name only a few.

The cardinal, however, waited until 1632 – a decade after the death of his uncle – to add to his collection a portrait of himself commissioned to Gian Lorenzo Bernini by Pope Urban VIII, for whom the sculptor was by this time working full-time in Saint Peter’s Basilica. ‘On a commission from the pope, Cavalier Bernini made the head of Cardinal Borghese in marble, which he donated in exchange for 500 zecchini and a diamond worth 150 scudi’ (Estense Secret Archive, Ducal Chancellery, ‘Avvisi e Notizie dall’estero’, envelope 13, 5294/101, in Fraschetti, Il Bernini, 1900, p. 106ff.). Scipione Borghese paid 500 scudi for the bust in December 1632 (Vatican Secret Archive, Borghese Archive, Registro dei Mandati dell’Eminentissimo Cardinale Scipione Borghese, fol. 252, no. 491, in Hibbard, Un nuovo documento, 1961, pp. 101, 105).

The years of waiting were repaid by this extraordinary work, in which the sculptor gave proof of an incredible artistic evolution. The portrait of Scipione in fact marks a stylistic and formal change in Bernini’s production of busts: the design is more essential, while the examination of the subject’s psychology is more profound, revealing greater expressive power. Parallel to 17th-century innovations evident in the portraiture of Rubens and Van Dyck, Bernini introduced the motif of the conversation with the observer into sculpture: here Scipione is in fact captured in a more intimate dimension, although the representation remains within the boundaries of ‘official’ canons. The depiction of his subject in a transitory moment reflects Bernini’s belief that the ideal reproduction of a subject was not obtained by meticulously copying his facial features while in pose; rather, individuality was best conveyed by depicting the person in movement. Not by chance, then, have scholars defined this type of work as a ‘talking portrait’ (Brauer, Wittkower 1931, p. 29ff.).

In this regard, it is interesting to compare the bust with the preparatory study held today at the Morgan Library in New York, the only surviving exemplar of the many drawings that the sculptor probably made for this project. The study shows that Bernini used a minimum of markings to capture the characteristic elements of the cardinal’s face. From a letter of the poet Lelio Guidiccioni, we know that Bernini would work on a marble while executing the model in clay and drawing directly on the block with a charcoal pencil, as seems to confirmed in this case by the discovery of dark traces on the cardinal’s eyes (McPhee, in Bernini, 2017, p. 237).

Filippo Baldinucci (1682, pp. 18-20) narrates that only after the work was finished did Bernini notice a defect in the marble block, namely a crack – called a ‘hair’ – that had formed; the imperfection is still visible on the cardinal’s forehead. The artist then made a replica of the bust over the space of only 15 nights – a period reduced to just three days in the biography by Bernini’s son Domenico (1713, p. 11). The anecdote is one of the main elements that fuelled the legend of the sculptor’s virtuosity.

Unlike artists before him, Bernini had a more carefree relationship with his sculptural medium. This is evident both in the fact that he left portions of his works unfinished when they were not to be seen, and that he did not personally select the blocks of marble to be sculpted. He indeed understood his calling as limited to moulding the medium in accordance with his ability and genius. Thanks to the fluidity of his working method, Bernini here manages to convey different impressions of his subject’s skin: taut and sweating on the face and unwrinkled where the neck meets the collar. In addition, he gives the silk mozzetta a shimmering surface, an effect achieved by the various inclinations of the folds, which reflect the light differently to create moiré patterns.

The cardinal displayed this version in the Room of the Emperors among the busts of the Caesars (Manilli 1650, p. 73). The second bust, meanwhile, was placed in the gallery of the Villa on the first floor. The conspicuous discrepancy in their respective positions reveals the different estimates that Scipione had of the two works: the defect in the first portrait, although clearly visible, was not of such an order that it compromised the immediacy and expressive force of the representation.

The 1762 inventory listed the bust as occupying the Room of the Moor, today’s Room 7 (Faldi 1953, p. 146, doc. I). At some point in the 19th century, it was moved to Room 9, the so-called ‘Portrait Room’. Together with the second version it was purchased by the Italian state in 1892 on the occasion of the first sale of the Borghese works that were excluded from the fideicommissum (Giacomini & Capobianchi, Rome, 28 March - 9 April 1892, no. 341). It was then conserved at the Accademia in Venice until 1908, when it returned to Villa Pinciana.

Sonja Felici

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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008681, Russo L. 1981; aggiornamento Felici S. 2020