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Gyges, Candaules and Rhodope

Luteri Giovanni called Dosso Dossi

(Tramuschio? 1487 ca - Ferrara 1542)

This painting is the earliest in the large group of works by Dossi in the Borghese Collection. It depicts an episode from a story in Herodotus that was revisited by Boiardo for Ercole d’Este. Candaules, king of Lydia, obsessed by the beauty of his wife Rhodope, convinces one of his soldiers, Gyges, to admire him while hidden in the king’s chamber. Discovering him, the queen forces the intruder to make a choice: either be condemned or kill the king who ordered this vile deception. Gyges kills Candaules, thus becoming king of Lydia.

Object details

oil on canvas
41 x 56 cm

Borghese collection, documented in Inv. c. 1630, no. 121; Inv. 1693, room VI, no. 19; Inv. 1790, room VI, no. 32; Inventario fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 25. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996 Guido Piervincenzi (ditta Elena Zivieri)
  • 1995 Emmebici (diagnostics)
  • 2021 ArsMensurae di Stefano Ridolfi (diagnostics)
  • 2021 IFAC-CNR (diagnostics)
  • 2022 Measure3D di Danilo Salzano (laser scan 3D)


As interesting as it is enigmatic, this painting was one of the first from Ferrara to enter the Borghese collection. It is probably item no. 121 in the inventory of 1630, which is described as ‘A painting of a nude Venus, 1 high, 2 wide, pediment-style frame with columns of walnut. Uncertain’ (Hermann Fiore 2002). The attribution, as with almost all the paintings from this workshop, shifts in the early documents: in the inventory of 1693, it is attributed to Paris Bordon, in 1790 it is associated with Pomarancio, then the artist is described as ‘unknown’ in the fideicommissary list of 1833 and then assigned to Scarsellino in the museum inventory of 1905 (Hermann Fiore 2002: 1905, no. 225).

The subject has been just as controversial as the attribution and was first identified by Lionello Venturi in 1909: an episode from the story of Gyges and Candaules, told for the first time by Herodotus (Histories 1.8–12) and translated for the first time from the Greek by Matteo Maria Boiardo in about 1480 (Modena, Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Manoscritti, Fondo Estense, segn. alfa.h.03.22, cat. It.1726) for the ‘Most Excellent Prince Ercole of Ferrara’. Drawing on the reading of this episode proposed by Lorenzo Valla in De voluptate (1431) and De vero falsoque bono (1433), the painting depicts the story of King Candaules showing off his wife Rhodope’s beauty to his friend, the soldier Gyges. The queen, enraged, forces him to make a terrible choice between prison and tyrannicide; Gyges chooses the latter. In another version, Rhodope and the soldier conspire to kill the king assisted by a magic ring (Plato, Repubblica 2. 358a–360d) that makes Gyges invisible, allowing him to carry out the murder and become king of Lydia.

This work is the first known representation of this episode in early sixteenth-century painting, a circumstance that certainly did not help with the attribution to the young Dosso, although what does are the well-proportioned, delicate composition echoing Giorgione’s paintings, the interesting use of chiaroscuro and the predilection for using an architectural fragment to close a landscape simultaneously night and day in its palette.

Art historians first recognised Dosso as the author of this small work in the first decades of the twentieth century (Longhi 1928; De Rinaldis 1948), an attribution also accepted by Paola Della Pergola in the object description for the painting in the Galleria’s catalogue of 1955 and more recently in studies of the Borghese Collection overall (Herrmann Fiore 1993; Coliva 1994; Stefani 2000; Herrmann Fiore 2002) and research focused on the painter (Ballarin 1993; Ciammitti 1998; Romani in Ballarin 1994-1995), with the exception of the exhibition devoted to Dosso in 1998, for which the painting was not included because the curators did not consider it to be autograph.

Lara Scanu

  • A. Venturi, II Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 131
  • L. Venturi, Note sulla Galleria Borghese, «L’arte», 12, 1909, p. 37
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. I, Galleria Borghese, «Vita Artistica», II, 1927 (ed. 1967), pp. 306, 311, 343
  • B. Berenson, Pitture italiane del Rinascimento: catalogo dei principali artisti e delle loro opere con un indice dei luoghi, Milano 1936, p. 445
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, n. 40
  • M. G. Antonelli Trenti, Notizie e precisazioni sul Dosso Giovane, «Arte Antica e Moderna», 28, 1964, p. 406
  • P. Dreyer, Die Entiwicklung des jungen Dosso (I): ein Beitragzur Chronologie der Jungendwerke des Meisters bis zum Jahre 1522, «Pantheon», (III) XXIII, 1, 1965, p. 23
  • A. Mezzetti, Il Dosso e Battista ferraresi, Ferrara 1965, pp. 112-113, n. 162
  • L. Puppi, Dosso Dossi, Milano 1965
  • B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools, I, London 1968, p. 113
  • F. Gibbons, Dosso and Battista Dossi Court Painters at Ferrara, Princeton 1968, pp. 117, 201-202, n. 61
  • A. Pigler, Barockthemen-Eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahhunderts, Budapest 1974, p. 317
  • A. Ballarin in Arte all’incanto. Mercato e prezzi dell’arte e dell’antiquariato alle aste Finarte, Milano 1987, pp. 18-20
  • P. L. De Castris, Indagine sul giovane Dossi, «Antichità Viva», XXVII, I, 1988, p. 7
  • A. Ballarin in Le siecle de Titien: l’âge d’or de la peinture a Venise, catalogo della mostra (Parigi, Grand Palais 9 marzo - 14 giugno 1993) a cura di G. Fage, Parigi, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1993, p. 455
  • A. Coliva, Galleria Borghese, Roma 1994, p. 166
  • V. Romani, in A. Ballarin, Dosso Dossi. La pittura a Ferrara negli anni del Ducato di Alfonso I, Cittadella (PD) 1994-1995, scheda 325
  • L. Ciammitti, Dosso’s fate: painting and court culture in Renaissance Italy, Los Angeles 1998, p. 97
  • C. Stefani, in Galleria Borghese, a cura di P. Moreno e C. Stefani, Milano 2000, p. 327
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Il museo senza confini. Dipinti ferraresi del Rinascimento nelle raccolte romane, a cura di J. Bentini e S. Guarino, Milano 2002, pp. 130-131, scheda 7