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Flight into Egypt

Cesari Giuseppe called Cavalier d'Arpino

(Arpino 1568 - Rome 1640)

Unlike the various paintings by Cavalier d’Arpino held by the Galleria Borghese, the Flight into Egypt was not part of the goods confiscated from Cesari in 1607. In all likelihood, it was purchased by Cardinal Scipione Borghese directly from the painter. Critics generally consider this panel a product of the artist’s early career. The work’s charm consists in the intimate portrayal of the Holy Family and its incorporation into a delicate fairy tale-like landscape, which attests to Cesari’s skill in this genre. The Temple of the Tiburtine Sibyl is depicted in the background on the left, a motif which perhaps alludes to Sybil’s prophecy of the birth of Christ.

Object details

c. 1595
oil on panel
45 x 33 cm
Salvator Rosa cm 57 x 44,5 x 5,5

Collection of Scipione Borghese, ante 1617 (payment for gilding of frame); Inv. 1693, room IX, no. 140; Inv. 1790, room V, no. 15; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 33, no. 19; Inv. 1854, room IV, no. 12; Inv. 1888, room III, no. 55. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.


  • 1973, Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 1995 Bruxelles, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
  • 2001 Roma, Palazzo Venezia; Londra, Royal Academy of Arts
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1906 Luigi Bartolucci
  • 1995 Istituto Centrale del Restauro


This small panel depicts an almost fairy tale-like landscape, rendered in quite delicate tones. While in the past scholars suggested a wide range of years for its execution – from 1592-93 to 1615 – today critics generally agree that it is a product of Cavalier d’Arpino’s early career, dating to roughly 1595. This conclusion is based on clear similarities with other works by him from the same period, including the Madonna and Child with Saints (Minneapolis Institute of Arts) and the Crucifixion with Mary, John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene (church of the Certosa di San Martino, Naples), as well as with several paintings by Paul Bril of the same years.

The foreground of the Flight into Egypt shows Mary seated on an ass holding the Child. Jesus extends his hand to Joseph, who in turn is depicted standing in a slightly rearward and decentred position. The composition is closed on the right side by dense vegetation which extends into the foreground, while a vista of the countryside opens up on the left, with a view of an ancient building in the background, which represents the Temple of the Tiburtine Sibyl. Some critics have suggested that the presence of the temple is not merely a motif to embellish the landscape but is significantly linked to the iconography of the sacred subject: the temple may in fact allude to the Sybil’s prophecy of the birth of Christ narrated by Saint Matthew. Views of valley plains appear frequently in Cesari’s oeuvre; the motif is used in a similar fashion in the great altarpiece St Francis Comforted by an Angel, held today at the Musée de la Chartreuse in Douai (Röttgen 2002, p. 286).

As in other works by the artist, here we note allusions to the fantastic landscapes of Paul Bril: the large tree which frames the figures on the right, the strong contrasts of light and shadow in the foliage, the detailed rendering of the vegetation, and even the incorporation of the temple in the background are all typical elements of Bril’s first Roman works; their presence here denotes an attempt to imitate the Flemish painter. At the same time, Cavalier d’Arpino’s longer and more fluid brushstrokes set off his style from that of the Flemish master.

Yet given these clear similarities with Bril’s production, the panel in question can be confidently dated to roughly 1595. The meticulous rendering of the landscape in the context of reduced-format, religious subjects intended for private worship is evident in other small works by Cesari of the same period (Cappelletti 2006, p. 91).

The Flight into Egypt did not form part of the goods confiscated from the painter in 1607, an event which led to the entry of several of his works into the collection of Scipione Borghese. It is rather likely that it was purchased by the cardinal at a later date. Indeed our first documentary mention of the work is a payment receipt from 1617 to the painter Giovanni Maria Carrara for the gilding of the frame of the ‘Virgin going to Egypt by Cavalier Giuseppe’ (Della Pergola 1959, p. 61): in this light, it is possible that the painting was sold directly to Scipione during the period in which Cesari was entrusted with a number of commissions. The work was later mentioned in Manilli’s guidebook as the ‘Virgin going to Egypt by the same artist [Cavalier Giuseppe]’ (1650, p. 112). The panel is listed in all the inventories of the Borghese Collection, beginning with that of 1693, although the attributions vary between Cesari and an unknown painter. A curious exception is an inventory of 1837, which ascribes the work to Bernardino Cesari, Giuseppe’s brother. The correct attribution to Cavalier d’Arpino reappears in the 1888 inventory and was confirmed by Giovanni Piancastelli, Adolfo Venturi and Roberto Longhi. The last-named scholar, however, believed the Borghese panel was a copy of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt formerly in the Barberini collection and now in Boston (Longhi 1928, p. 198; Röttgen 2002, p. 286).

Our panel was displayed both in the exhibition dedicated to Cavalier d’Arpino in 1973 and in that entitled The Genius of Rome in 2001. The work is a prime example of Cesari’s skill in the field of landscape painting.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 112. 
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 367. 
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 132. 
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I: La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 198. 
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’Arte Italiana, vol. IX, Roma 1932, 5, p. 938. 
  • A. Quadrini, Il Cavalier d’Arpino, Isola del Liri 1940, p. 52. 
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 56. 
  • P. Della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 35. 
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 61, n. 87. 
  • H. Röttgen in Il Cavalier D’Arpino, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Venezia, 1973), a cura di H. Röttgen, Roma 1973, pp. 82-83, n. 13. 
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 123. 
  • P, Cavazzini, in The genius of Rome, 1592-1623, catalogo della mostra (Londra, Royal Academy of Arts, 2001 - Roma, Palazzo Venezia, 2001) a cura di B.L. Brown, London 2001, pp. 218-219, n. 79.
  • H. Röttgen, Il Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari D’Arpino: un grande pittore nello splendore della fama e nell’incostanza della fortuna, Roma 2002, p. 286, n. 56. 
  • F. Cappelletti, Paul Bril e la pittura di paesaggio a Roma, 1580-1630, Roma 2006, pp. 90-91.
  • 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.78.