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Diana and Actaeon

Cesari Bernardino

(Arpino 1571 - Rome 1622)

Probably purchased by Scipione Borghese, this painting was mentioned in the short poem of 1613 that describes the cardinal’s collection. The canvas is a faithful copy made by Bernardino Cesari of the Diana and Actaeon painted by his brother Giuseppe, known as Cavalier d’Arpino, who produced at least two versions of the subject. The rock in the lower portion of the work bears the artist’s signature. Scholars have relied on this composition to attempt to reconstruct Bernardino’s oeuvre, given that very few works have been ascribed to him.

Object details

oil on canvas
62 x 83 cm

Salvator Rosa, 78.5 x 97.5 x 7 cm


Collection of Scipione Borghese, ante 1613 (Francucci); Inv. c.1633, no. 134; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 28, no. 52; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1973 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 1996-1997 Lecce, Fondazione Memmo
  • 2000 Bergamo, Accademia Carrara
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996-1997 Istituto Centrale del Restauro


The painting depicts the myth in which Diana transformed Actaeon into a stag. It is a copy of the popular composition painted by his brother Giuseppe, known as Cavalier d’Arpino, who produced at least two versions of the subject, held today at the Louvre and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest; in addition, several other copies were made of Giuseppe’s originals (on these, see Röttgen 1973, pp. 107-109). In the view of Herwarth Röttgen (1973, pp. 107-108), the Louvre painting is the older of the two prototypes, executed in 1600-01, when Cavalier d’Arpino travelled to Paris to view the group of nymphs in a painting by Pomarancio in Fontainebleau; this work, now lost, is known to us by a drawing held at the Louvre. The version of Giuseppe’s Diana and Actaeon in Budapest dates to about the same period as the earlier work; it differs from the latter in only a few details, such as the absence of the lance in Actaeon’s hand. Bernardino’s copy is a faithful reproduction of the Hungarian version; concerning the date of its execution, 1613 represents the terminus post quem, given that it is documented as forming part of the Borghese Collection in that year.

Although the circumstances of its entry into the collection are not known, we can exclude the possibility that it formed part of the group of paintings confiscated from Cavalier d’Arpino in 1607 (the event which led to a number of other of his works coming into the family’s possession): while two drawings depicting Actaeon are cited in that inventory, no paintings with the subject are mentioned. It is therefore likely that Bernardino’s painting was purchased directly by Cardinal Scipione, as it was already in his possession by 1613. Scipione Francucci’s short poem dedicated to the cardinal’s collection in fact correctly cites the work as by Cesari.

The inventory of the cardinal’s works, which dates to roughly 1633, likewise lists the canvas with the proper attribution: ‘134. A painting with Diana’s pool and Actaeon, walnut frame with gilding, 2 ⅓ tall, 3 ¼ wide, red taffeta. Belardino d'Arpino’ (Corradini 1998, p. 452; for the possible dating of the inventory, see S. Pierguidi, ‘“In materia totale di pitture si rivolsero al singolar Museo Borhesiano”: la quadreria Borghese tra il palazzo di Ripetta e la villa Pinciana’, Journal of the History of Collections, XXVI, 2014, 2, pp. 161-170). The work is also mentioned in several guidebooks to the Borghese Collection, beginning with that by Manilli from 1650 (p. 109, in the Room of the Three Graces). While the canvas does not appear in the 1693 or 18th-century inventories, it is listed in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario.

The attribution of the work, consistently made in all the documentation, is clearly shown by the painter’s signature on the rock below Actaeon: ‘Bernardinus Cesar ab exemplo Josephi fratris Arpinas’. The signature turns out to be of great interest to scholars, as very few works by Bernardino have been identified. Using this work as the prime point of reference, critics have attempted to reconstruct the oeuvre of this artist (Röttgen 1973, pp. 168-169; 2002, p. 529; and 2019, pp. 148-149), whom Baglione called a first-rate copyist and draughtsman. In general, Bernardino’s painting takes its cue from his brother’s style; yet his idiom differs from Giuseppe’s, in that his lines are more distinct and his figures slightly colder, at times heavier in their proportions than those of his brother; such divergences are borne out by a comparison of this copy with the two originals by Giuseppe.

The mythological scene depicted here is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (III, 138-259): while hunting, Actaeon surprised the naked Diana while she was bathing with her nymphs. The goddess punished him by transforming him into a stag such that he could no longer speak. Not recognised by his own dogs, Actaeon was devoured by them as he tried to escape. The subject was already popular in the 15th century; yet it lost the cruel and tragic character of Ovid’s story and was gradually reinterpreted in a more playful key, or at least with greater emphasis on the eroticism of the encounter and the idyllic character of the wooded setting. In this guise, the subject met with great success, especially among northern European artists beginning in the last quarter of the 16th century. The depiction of the myth continued along these lines, exalting the modesty of the chaste Diana, which is violated by Actaeon’s intrusion, and foregrounding the context of the hunt, which inspired artists to paint lush landscapes (Tosini 1996, pp. 153-155). The theme was thus well suited to the tastes of collectors seeking small paintings with an erotic and ornamental character for their small rooms or private cabinets. Cavalier d’Arpino avidly pursued this genre, while certainly coming under the influence of the Flemish artists who arrived in Rome in the late 16th century; contributing to the popularity of this production, these painters created prototypes that were widely replicated in his workshop, given that they could be sold immediately.

Giuseppe’s painting, copied here by his brother, took some liberties with regard to Ovid’s tale: in particular, in the composition he conflates the moment of Actaeon’s transformation – the stag’s antlers have already formed on his head – with the following episode of his falling prey to his dogs. Patrizia Tosini (1996, p. 154) noted that the work drew inspiration from an engraving with the same subject by Antonio Tempesta. In addition to the fact that Cesari borrowed the same blending of the two separate moments of the mythological story, the dogs in the painting seem to be direct copies of those in the engraving. On the other hand, the motif of depicting the goddess in profile – recognisable here by the crescent moon in her hair – with her hands close to the surface of the water in order to splash Actaeon, derives from Parmigianino’s Fontanellato frescoes.

Van Mander pointed out that Cavalier d’Arpino’s particular iconographic choice – evident in Flemish circles as well – reflects the development of a moralising interpretation of the myth of Diana and Actaeon. The work is in fact intended as a warning lest we should be seduced by our senses, in this case that of sight: if on the one hand the physical sensuality of Diana and her nymphs stimulates the senses of the viewer, on the other the irreproachable chastity of the goddess who plots her revenge on Actaeon is the focal point of the moral lesson imparted by the work (Tosini, 1996, p. 154).


Pier Ludovico Puddu

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  • X. Barbier de Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Rome 1870, p. 358. 
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  • S. Corradini, Un antico inventario della quadreria del Cardinale Borghese, in Bernini scultore: la nascita del barocco in Casa Borghese, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Galleria Borghese, 1998), a cura di A. Coliva, S. Schütze e A. Campitelli, Roma 1998, p. 452.
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  • H. Röttgen, Il Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari D’Arpino: un grande pittore nello splendore della fama e nell’incostanza della fortuna, Roma 2002, p. 529.
  • 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. 135.
  • H. Röttgen, Bernardino Cesari d’Arpino pittore. Un artista nell’ombra del suo fratello maggiore, Stuttgart 2019, pp. 32, 45, 148-149, n. 27.