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Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

Cardi Ludovico called Cigoli

(Cigoli 1559 - Rome 1613)

Signed and dated ‘Lod. Cigoli F. 1610’, this painting was executed for Antonio Ricci, who became bishop of Arezzo in 1611. Shortly thereafter the work came into the possession of Scipione Borghese, probably as a gift from Ricci himself. The canvas depicts an episode from the Old Testament interpreted in a secular key, namely a bedroom scene in which Potiphar’s wife appears as a perfect courtesan. The emphatic gesturing of the figures as well as the elaborate garments and setting lends the scene a marked theatrical air.


Object details

oil on canvas
cm 220 x 150

Salvator Rosa, 245 x 175 x 9 cm


Antonio Ricci, bishop of Arezzo, 1610; collection of Scipione Borghese (gift of bishop of Arezzo), ante 1613; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 19, no. 44; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


  • 1959 San Miniato, Accademia degli Euteleti
  • 1986-1987 Firenze, Palazzo Strozzi
  • 2016-2017 Roma, Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1914 Lorenzo Cecconi Principi
  • 1950 Augusto Cecconi Principi (cleaning)


This painting was executed for Msgr Antonio Ricci, who became bishop of Arezzo in 1611. Although the canvas is signed and dated ‘Lod. Cigoli F. 1610’, this inscription evidently became illegible over time, resulting in the loss of the attribution to Cigoli. The 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario indeed listed the work generically as a product of the Florentine school, while Barbier de Montault later ascribed it to Giovanni Lanfranco (1870, p. 354, n. 217). Only at the end of the 19th century did Giovanni Piancastelli (1891, p. 281) make the correct attribution to the Tuscan artist.

The painting entered the collection of Cardinal Borghese no later than 1613, as is confirmed by the poem which Scipione Francucci ([1613] 1647, st. 164-168) dedicated to his picture gallery that same year. This early date of its transfer into the possession of Scipione Borghese has led some scholars to propose that the cardinal received it as a gift from Msgr Ricci, perhaps in the context of the latter’s prestigious nomination as bishop. In the view of Anna Matteoli (1980, pp. 124-125), Ricci commissioned the work with the specific intention of giving it to Borghese, asking the artist to depict a subject that could serve as the pendant of Giovanni Baglione’s Judith and Holofernes, which the cardinal already owned. The two works are in fact not only of the same size but also correspond to each other in compositional terms, with Joseph and Judith leaning toward the left and right sides of the respective scenes. These correspondences have led critics to suggest that Cigoli wished his work to ‘communicate’ with that of Baglione, as he was aware of its final destination. In 1650, Manilla in fact viewed the two paintings in the same room in Villa Pinciana, as did Montelatici (1700, pp. 205-206) at the beginning of the 18th century.

The work depicts Joseph in the act of fleeing the seductive advances of the wife of Potiphar, the Egyptian general who had enlisted the son of Jacob to serve him. According to the Biblical narrative, the woman fell in love with Joseph and tried in vain to conquer him; frustrated by his continual refusals, she falsely accused him of assaulting her.

The scene is pervaded by a Baroque atmosphere which places the Biblical tale within a profane setting. The female protagonist is depicted in the guise of a courtesan, wearing a low-cut dress and displaying her left leg, which her fallen stocking has left bare. The artist devoted great attention to the representation of the garments and furniture, as we see from both the precious, lavishly decorated fabrics and the care taken in rendering certain other details, such as the shoes, one of which lies upturned on the floor in the foreground, having fallen from the woman’s foot. The rich and sumptuous clothing lends the scene a theatrical air, through which the protagonists move with highly eloquent gestures. A dog is visible in the lower left hand corner, a traditional symbol of fidelity: in this case the animal growls in disapproval of the woman’s attempt to violate her marriage vows (Chappell 1986, p. 116; Faranda 1986, pp. 167-168; Stefani 2000, p. 194; Baldassari 2016, p. 92).

The work is a product of the artist’s late career. From a stylistic point of view, it harks back to the typical elements of his oeuvre in Rome between 1609 and 1613, such as the great compositional dynamism and the carefully studied expressions (Chappell, 1986; Baldassari, 2016). In particular, critics have pointed to the similarities between this canvas and the lunette depicting Psyche Holding Cupid, part of a fresco cycle which Scipione Borghese commissioned to Cigoli in 1611 for the loggia – no longer extant – of his palazzo on Quirinal Hill, subsequently owned by the Pallavicini Rospigliosi family (the frescoes were removed and are held today at the Museo di Roma).

A number of contemporary Tuscan artists drew inspiration from Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, taking up the subject with the same taste for theatricality. The versions most clearly showing the influence of Cigoli include the one by Ottavio Vannini (Florence, Uffizi Galleries, storerooms and that by Giovanni Bilivert (Florence, Palazzo Pitti), a student of Cardi who collaborated with him in Rome between 1604 and 1607. In addition, several preparatory drawings can be associated with the work in question, which are discussed by Matteoli (1980) in his study of the artist.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • S. Francucci, La Galleria dell’Illustrissimo e Reverendissimo Signor Scipione Cardinale Borghese cantata in versi [1613], Arezzo 1647, St. 164-168.
  • G.B. Cardi, Vita di Lodovico Cardi Cigoli 1559-1613, [1628] Firenze 1913, pp. 36, 55, 57.
  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 60.
  • D. Montelatici, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana con l’ornamenti che si osservano nel di lei Palazzo, Roma 1700, pp. 205-206.
  • F. Baldinucci, Notizie de’ professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua, Firenze 1702, p. 36.
  • X. Barbier de Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Rome 1870, p. 354, n. 217.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 281.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 29.
  • K.H. Busse, Manierismus und Barockstil, Inaugural-Dissertation, Leipzig 1911, p. 31.
  • E. Hòffmann, A Szépmüveszeti Múseum Néhany olasy Raizárol, in Az O. M. Szépmüveszeti Múseum Evkönyvei, IV, (1924-26) Budapest 1927, pp. 154-155.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 177.
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’Arte Italiana, IX, 7, Milano 1834, p. 716.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma (“Itinerari dei Musei e Monumenti d’Italia”, XLIII), Roma 1939, p. 12.
  • G.J. Hoogewerff, Giovanni Bilivert, in “Mededeelingen van het Nederländisch Historisch Jnstituut te Rome”, III, 1944, pp. 120-121.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma (“Itinerari dei Musei e Monumenti d’Italia”, XLIII), Roma 1951, p. 12.
  • A. Pigler, Barockthemen. Eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, Budapest 1956, p. 76.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 21-22, n. 20.
  • Mostra del Cigoli e del suo ambiente, catalogo della mostra (San Miniato 1959), a cura di M. Bucci, Città di San Miniato 1959, pp. 104-106.
  • C.H. Carman, Cigoli Studies, Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, Diss., 1972, p. 162.
  • M. Aronberg Lavin, Seventeenth-century Barberini documents and inventories of art, New York 1975, p. 478.
  • A. Matteoli, Ludovico Cardi – Cigoli pittore e architetto, Pisa 1980, pp. 124-126.
  • A. Matteoli, in Immagini del Cigoli e del suo ambiente, catalogo della mostra (San Miniato, Museo Diocesano/Palazzo Migliorati, 1985), a cura di A. Matteoli, San Miniato 1985, p. 33, n. 91.
  • M.L. Chappell, in Il Seicento fiorentino: arte a Firenze da Ferdinando I a Cosimo III, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Palazzo Strozzi, 1986-1987), Firenze 1986, p. 116, n. 1.23.
  • F. Faranda, Ludovico Cardi detto il Cigoli, Roma 1986, pp. 167-168, n. 81.
  • R. Contini, Il Cigoli, Soncino CR 1991, p. 96, n. 29.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Guida alla Galleria Borghese, Roma 1997, p. 59.
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 194, n. 16.
  • 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. 12.
  • J. Mersmann, Ludovico Cigoli. Formen der wahrheit um 1600, Berlin - Boston 2016, pp. 345-346.