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The hunting of Diana

Zampieri Domenico called Domenichino

(Bologna 1581 - Naples 1641)

Commissioned for the villa of Frascati by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, the work was confiscated from Domenichino – who was imprisoned for several days – thanks to Scipione Borghese’s ruthless passion for collecting. In fact, in 1617, to provide some compensation for the unique form of persuasion, the painter was paid 150 scudi, but for two works by the artist instead, currently exhibited in the same room: The Hunt of Diana and The Cumaean Sibyl (inv. 55).

Domenichino used narrative imagination in reworking and synthesising the style of Titian's famous Bacchanal, emulating Raphael's clarity and Correggio’s sensuality. Cornerstones of the composition are the two nymphs in the foreground: one reveals the calibrated structure of diagonal planes, derived from Carracci, the other seeks out the viewer's eye, inviting him to admire the goddess, symbol of chastity and seduction. The other maidens are rhythmically arranged around Diana, portrayed holding her bow at the end of a race, immediately before the punishment inflicted on the curious defilers, hidden in the bushes but discovered by the greyhound on the verge of attacking them.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 225x320

19th-century frame decorated with palmettes and lotus leaves



Rome, Scipione Borghese, 1617 (Della Pergola 1955, p. 28); Inv. 1700, room II, no. 1; Inv. 1790, room II, no. 1; Inventario Didecommissario 1833, p. 8; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1922 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti;
  • 1935 Parigi, Petit Palais;
  • 1985 Roma, Palazzo Venezia;
  • 1988-1989 Roma, Palazzo Venezia;
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni;
  • 1994 Roma, Villa Medici;
  • 1996-1997 Roma, Palazzo Venezia;
  • 2000 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni;
  • 2001 Londra, Royal Academy.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1804 (?) F. Popive (rifodero);
  • 1919-1920 Tito Venturini Papari (pulitura e verniciatura);
  • 1931-1933 Tito Venturini Papari (pulitura);
  • 1945 Carlo Matteucci (verniciatura);
  • 1994 Nicola Salini, Sandra Anahi Vanca (consolidamento, tela da rifodero, rimozione vernice, ridipinture, stuccature, verniciatura finale);
  • 1996 ENEA (indagini diagnostiche);
  • 1996-1997 Carlo Ceccotti (restauro completo della cornice);
  • 2001 Zari & Giantomassi (smontaggio vecchio telaio, pulitura, applicazione fasce di rinforzo, montaggio su nuovo telaio).


This work was commissioned to the Bolognese painter by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, for whom Domenichino was adorning the ceiling of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere (1616-1617) and carrying out the fresco decoration of the Frascati villa (1616-1618), which was the apparent destination of this painting. Yet Cardinal Scipione Borghese ordered Zampieri to part with the work, as he wished to add both this canvas and the artist’s Sibyl (inv. no. 55) to his rich and distinguished collection. The cardinal in fact paid the painter the ludicrous sum of 150 scudi for both works.

The episode is recounted in the biography by Giovanni Battista Passeri: ‘When Cardinal Scipione Borghese saw this nice painting, he wanted it and asked the painter for it. But the latter begged his pardon, telling him he couldn’t oblige him because he had made it upon a commission from Cardinal Aldobrandini. Borghese became angry and sent someone to forcibly take it from the painter’s home. And yet he still wasn’t content: he ordered Domenico’s arrest and had him kept in jail for several days’ (1772, pp. 42-43). The biographer goes on to say that after a few days in prison Domenichino was forced to sell the work to the cardinal-nephew, receiving the modest sum of 40 scudi, an incredibly low amount for such a painting. In fact critics have proposed that the sum was only a deposit and not the final remuneration, as the artist also received a partial payment from Cardinal Aldobrandini, who had originally commissioned the work.

With great skill, Domenichino depicts an episode narrated by Virgil in the fifth chapter of the Aeneid (verses 485-518), in which three archers, friends of Aeneas, compete in killing a dove which has been tied to the ship’s main mast. As shown in the painting, three arrows are shot: the first hits a pole, the second the ribbon tied around the bird’s feet, and the third the dove itself.

Inspired by the painting by Apelles (Kliemann 1996), Domenichino imagined a competition among females only and placed Diana at the centre of the scene, surrounded by her nymphs. Meanwhile, two men, hidden behind a bush at the extreme right of the work, spy on the participants: their presence indeed recalls the myth of Actaeon, the young hunter who was transformed into a deer and torn to pieces by the dogs of the terrible goddess. Other details of the painting seem to allude to that tale as well, such as the two greyhounds on the right and the nymphs in the water, including a beautiful girl with a sensual, captivating gaze that invites the observer to take part in this surreal world.

It was probably Giovanni Battista Agucchi (Kliemann 1996), Cardinal Aldobrandini’s secretary and major-domo, who proposed this subject to the Bolognese painter. As Passeri wrote, Aldobrandini commissioned this canvas for his impressive art collection, which included the famous paintings of Bacchanal scenes by Giovanni Bellini, Titian and Dosso Dossi, much-admired works that had been brought to Rome from Ferrara. In addition, critics believe that the choice of this theme fit well with both the natural surroundings of the villa – immersed in the splendid landscape of the hills around Tusculum – and the stories of Diana which Domenichino had frescoed in Frascati during that period.

As the receipt for the payment of 50 scudi indicates, the canvas – which was confiscated in April 1617 – was begun between 1615 and 1616, immediately after Guardian Angel (Naples, Museo di Capodimonte), which is dated 1615. Evidence for the chronological proximity of these two works is provided by the perfect correspondence between Diana’s garments and those of the painting in Naples. In addition, as the research of Kristina Hermann Fiore (1996) made clear, the painter used numerous ancient sculptures, including the Ludovisi Aphrodite, as models for both the goddess and her nymphs. Finally, the work betrays the influence of the so-called Aldobrandini Wedding, a classical Roman fresco, in its colouring and play of shadows.

Many copies of this work have been made, including that in the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, which also holds several preparatory sketches. Drawings made by Domenichino as studies for The Hunting of Diana are preserved at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle – these were made known by John Pope-Hennessy in 1948 – and at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

An engraving of the work, dedicated to Cardinal Giacomo Rospigliosi, was made by Giovanni Francesco Venturini between 1667 and 1684.

  Antonio Iommelli

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