In the past this painting was confused with another copy of Sebastiano del Piombo’s Flagellation present in the Borghese Collection (inv. no. 133). Critics have not agreed on the attribution of the work in question. While some have looked to the circle of Emilian Mannerists, others have proposed the disputed name of the Flemish painter Denis Calvaert. The canvas depicts the half-naked Christ being whipped by several torturers while he is tied to a column. On the right, a boy witnesses the scene in silence.
Rome, Borghese Collection, 1833 (Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 40; Della Pergola 1959). Purchased by Italian state, 1902.
The provenance of this painting is still unknown. Unlike the other copy of Luciani’s Flagellation present in the Galleria (inv. no. 133) – which may have come from the collection of Cavalier d'Arpino – the work in question was first mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in 1833, when it was listed in the Inventario Fidecommissario as a work by Taddeo Zuccari. While Giovanni Piancastelli (1891) accepted this name, it was rejected by Adolfo Venturi (1893), who ascribed it to Giuseppe Cesari, perhaps mistaking this work for the other version.
The first scholar to put forth the name of Denis Calvaert was Giulio Cantalamessa (1912). This idea had already been suggested by Lionello Venturi (1909) and was repeated by Simone Bergmans (1928; 1931; 1934), Leo van Puyvelde (1950) and, most recently, Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2006). The absence of more precise information, however, prevents us from definitively acknowledging the Flemish master as the artist of this canvas, which certainly derives from Sebastiano del Piombo’s Flagellation of Christ in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. Roberto Longhi (1928) and Paola della Pergola (1959) both expressed doubts about this attribution, as they were unable to recognise the hand of Calvaert in this work, which is just one more variation of the original. In fact, the success of Sebastiano’s prototype compounds the difficulties in identifying the painters of the numerous copies made for devotional purposes (see on this point Lucco 1980), one or which was actually executed by the Venetian master himself for the church of the Osservanza in Viterbo (Museo Civico, Viterbo). In addition, if we compare the Borghese Flagellation with that from the Bolognese church of San Leonardo alle Carceri – which Calvaert executed in 1580-85 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, inv. no. 488) – we note a different rendering of Christ’s face, which appears clear and polished in the Borghese work but wrinkled and grooved in the Bologna exemplar. Likewise, the perspective is projected differently, while the execution of the columns is not the same: in the former case they are painted with great attention to the veins of the marble. For the same reasons that cast doubt on an attribution to the Flemish master, we are not persuaded by the other names that have been put forth by critics over the years, including those of Taddeo Zuccari, Orazio Sammacchini and Tiburzio Passerotti (Della Pergola 1959; Cantalamessa 1907; Longhi 1928).
As Della Pergola (1959) suggested, it is probable that the work in question was realised no later than 1530-40. It shows a number of differences with respect to both the other Borghese copy and the painting of San Pietro in Montorio: here Christ’s body is turned slightly to the left, while his tormentors, all of whom are dressed, are observed by two men in the distance and by a boy on the extreme right who is portrayed in a broad and deep corner of the structure. The depiction of this last-mentioned figure is probably what led Giulio Cantalamessa to search for the artist in Emilian circles: the curled lock of hair on his forehead recalls the physiognomic types of Correggio and Parmigianino, although in this case it is rendered in a way that is distant from the styles of these two masters. At the same time, as in the Borgherini chapel light plays a crucial role in the canvas in question, highlighting the plasticity and centrality of the body of Jesus, whose face – intentionally painted in profile – lends greater emphasis and pathos to the scene.