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David with the Head of Goliath

Caracciolo Giovanni Battista called Battistello

(Naples 1578 - 1635)

The painting is cited with an attribution to Giovanni Battista Caracciolo, called Battistello, in a payment notice for its frame, dated 1612. This year, then, represents the terminus ante quem for the execution of the canvas itself. The discovery of the receipt settled the question of the attribution of the work, which in the past was ascribed to an anonymous follower of Caravaggio, with some scholars specifying the name of Orazio Borgianni. The canvas clearly shows that the artist drew on several compositional elements of the work with the same subject painted by Guido Reni in 1605-1606, held today at the Louvre.


Object details

ante 1612
oil on canvas
cm 202 x 112

Salvator Rosa, 222 x 135 x 9 cm


Collection of Scipione Borghese, documented in 1612 (payment for frame); Inv. 1693, room II, no. 24; Inv. 1790, room IX, no. 39; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 38, no. 57; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1951 Milano, Palazzo Reale
  • 1999-2000 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado; Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes
  • 2001 Tokyo, Museo Teien; Okazaki, City Museum
  • 2009-2010 Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art; Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum
  • 2011 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2013 San Pietroburgo, Hermitage Museum
  • 2014-2015 Roma, Palazzo Barberini
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1942 Carlo Matteucci (cleaning)
  • 1951 Restorers for the exhibition Caravaggio a Milano (cleaning)
  • 2006 ENEA (diagnostics)
  • 2006 Cecilia Bernardini


This work was specifically executed for the collection of Scipione Borghese. In an oral communication subsequently reported in the Ministry of Culture’s profile of the painting, Filippo Todini was the first scholar to associate it with Battistello Caracciolo (Bon Valsassina 1981). First Maurizio Marini (1981, p. 419, note 14) and then Gianni Papi (1991, pp. 47-48, note 55; 1993, p. 143, n. 69) built on this proposal, suggesting that the canvas dated to the artist’s stay in Rome in 1617. Previously, Longhi had put forth the name of Orazio Borgianni (1914, p. 10ff.), only to later change his attribution to an anonymous follower of Caravaggio (1951, p. 50, n. 76), an opinion with which Paola Della Pergola (1959, pp. 84-85, n. 118) cautiously agreed. The confirmation that the work is by the Neapolitan artist came in the wake of the discovery in the Borghese Archive of the payment receipt for the frame for the ‘David, painted by Battistello’, with the date 1612 (Fumagalli 1993, pp. 88-89). The document not only settled the question of attribution but also provided a terminus ante quem for the execution of the canvas. This is one of the very rare cases in which a work by the Battistello can be dated with certainty: indeed, for the period from 1607 to 1615 – the years of his full adherence to the modes of Caravaggio – the chronology of his production has been much debated (Leone 2011, p. 220). In addition to the work in question, the only other painting for which archival documents provide a sure date is the Qui vult venire post me (formerly held in the Doria collection in Genoa, today in the Rector’s Office of the University of Turin), which was executed in 1614.

Further evidence for the attribution of the David with the Head of Goliath came to light during a recent restoration operation, when the phrase ‘Battistello of Naples’ was discovered on the back of the canvas (Bernardini 2006, p. 14).

With regard to the 17th- and 18th-century inventories of the Borghese Collection, a painting depicting David with the Head of Goliath was mentioned by Manilli (1650, p. 71) who attributed it to Giulio Romano, and by Montelatici (1700, p. 288), who ascribed it to an unknown artist. The 1693 and 1790 inventories, together with the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario, listed a work with this subject, in each case with an attribution to Caravaggio.

Over the years, critics (Fumagalli 1993, p. 90; Causa 2000, p. 56; Terzaghi 2007, pp. 323-327; Leone 2011; Ghelfi 2014, p. 78) have often noted the clear derivation of the work in question from Guido Reni’s David with the Head of Goliath, which is known in several versions. In particular, scholars have pointed to the work held in the Louvre as the prototype. It is believed that Caracciolo may have actually seen that painting, leading some writers to surmise that it might also have formed part of the Borghese Collection at the time that the Neapolitan artist painted his version of the theme (Terzaghi 2007, p. 325). The two works indeed show a number of compositional similarities, in particular the full-length representation of David, his pose with legs crossed, his plumed hat, and the presence of ancient fragments. Further likenesses can be noted between the work in question and Caravaggio’s own rendering of the subject, which also forms part of the Borghese Collection (inv. no. 455): Caracciolo may have seen this work in Naples, if it is true that the painting did not reach Rome before 1612 – a question that is still debated (Terzaghi 2007, p. 326). Stefano Causa (2000, p. 56) in fact pointed to more than one similarity between these two works, such as the pulsating energy emitted by the young victor, the depiction of his face, and the motif of his tense arm as he holds the head of his decapitated enemy (see also Fumagalli 1993, p. 90).

The influence of Caravaggio is further evident in the rapid, minimal execution of Caracciolo’s work: to the initial dark ground preparation – a procedure used to ‘economise’ in the rendering of the background and shadows – the painter added light colour to construct the figures. The same tactic was adopted by Merisi during his late Roman period and was often repeated by Battistello in works that are chronologically close to this David (Leone 2011, pp. 250-251).

The figure of David emerging from the dark background on the right of the composition is depicted slightly larger than life, in a three-quarter pose. The scene is immersed in darkness, so much so that the background and large ornate capital on which David rests the severed head of Goliath are just visible. The young protagonist is illuminated by a powerful ray of light coming from the left, which strikes the head of the giant as well, imbuing the representation with an almost theatrical air.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 71.
  • D. Montelatici, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana con l’ornamenti che si osservano nel di lei Palazzo, Roma 1700, p. 288.
  • X. Barbier de Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Rome 1870, p. 364.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 111.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 18.
  • L. Venturi, Note sulla Galleria Borghese, in "L'Arte", XII, 1909, pp. 39, 42-43.
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1912, n. 2.
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  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 176.
  • A. De Rinaldis, L’Arte in Roma, dal ‘600 al ‘900, Bologna 1948, pp. 142-143.
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  • Mostra del Caravaggio e dei Caravaggeschi, catalogo della mostra (Milano, Palazzo Reale, 1951), a cura di R. Longhi, Milano 1951, p. 50, n. 76.
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  • F. Todini (comunicazione orale), in C. Bon Valsassina, scheda ministeriale, 1981.
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  • A. Coliva, a cura di, La Galleria Borghese, Roma 1994, n. 154.
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  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 90, n. 12.
  • M.C. Guardata in Caravaggio e i suoi primi seguaci, catalogo della mostra (Tokyo, Metropolitan Teien Art Museum 2001. Okazaki, City Museum, 2001-2002), a cura di C. Strinati, R. Vodret, Roma 2001, p. 138, n. 30.
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  • 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. 9.
  • M.C. Terzaghi, Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni tra le ricevute del Banco Herrera & Costa, Roma 2007, pp. 323-327.
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  • B. Ghelfi, in Da Guercino a Caravaggio. Sir Denis Mahon e l’arte italiana del XVII secolo, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Barberini, 2014-2015), a cura di A. Coliva, M. Gregori, S. Androsov, Roma 2015, p. 78.