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Landscape with Saint Francis of Assisi

Workshop of Bril Paul

(Antwerp 1554 - Rome 1626)

This painting, traditionally attributed to Paul Bril, is now more convincingly believed to be a workshop piece. The subject depicted is Saint Francis in an open landscape, following a pictorial scheme typical of 16th-century Flemish art, welcomed in Italy by way of the Brescia painter Girolamo Muziano. The choice of the copper support, with its typical glossy enamelled appearance, refers directly to the painting’s Nordic setting.

Object details

fine ‘500
oil on copper
cm 24x31

Salvator Rosa, 30.4 x 37.5 x 4.5 cm


Rome, Giuseppe Cesari called Cavalier d’Arpino, ante 1607 (?); Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1607 (?); Inv. 1693, room IX, no. 29 (?); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 27, no. 34; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1990 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1936 Augusto Cecconi Principi (pulitura)
  • 1952 Augusto Vermehren (pulitura)


Today this work on copper is conserved in the storerooms of the Galleria Borghese. Its provenance is uncertain, as are the exact circumstances which led to its entrance into the collection. It may have been among the works confiscated from Cavaliere d’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari) in 1607. This episode was triggered by accusations against Cesari of illegal possession of weapons, which led to the seizure of 105 works belonging to the painter, which were first appropriated by Paul V, who in turn donated them to Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The inventory compiled on that occasion, which did not contain any attributions, contains more than one entry whose description might point to the work in question. None of these, however, is detailed enough to allow us to draw any conclusions. For this reason, it has not been possible to either completely confirm or reject the hypothesis that it came from Cesari’s workshop.

The work is perhaps mentioned in the Borghese inventory of 1693, where we read of ‘a painting on panel with a landscape and St Francis or perhaps a different saint kneeling; no. 352, as marked on the back; gilded frame; by Paul Bril’. The description of the scene matches the work in question, although the support medium – ‘panel’ and not copper – is mistaken, which casts doubt on this identification.

In the 1833 fideicommissum inventory, the painting has been identified in entry no. 34 of the Gabinetto: ‘St Francis in the desert, by Paul Bril, 1 span 3 inches wide, 1 span 10 inches high, in copper’. This inventory repeats the attribution to Bril already seen in that of 1693, which some critics have considered correct. At the end of the 19th century, both Giovanni Piancastelli (1891, p. 386) and Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 139) confirmed the ascription to the Flemish master; later, Anton Mayer (1910, p. 76) proposed dating the work to roughly 1595. While Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 201) shared this opinion, Leo Van Puyvelde (1950, p. 74) considered it a work of the painter’s youth. Paola Della Pergola (1959, p. 152, n. 213) detected notable craftsmanship in the painting, calling it an example of Bril’s best pictorial work.

In 1990, the painting was displayed at the exhibition Rubens e Roma held in Rome with the same attribution and the date of approximately 1595 proposed by Mayer (Magrì 1990, p. 40, n. 4). More recently, Francesca Cappelletti called the attribution into question, proposing rather that it was executed by members of Bril’s workshop (Cappelletti 2006, pp. 178-179, note 38).

The scene is divided into two parts in accordance with a formula widely used by the painter and his school. This is based on juxtaposing the left portion, reserved for the foreground – in this case occupied by the figure of St Francis of Assisi – with the right side, where a landscape unfolds towards the back of the composition. The effect is intensified by the different chromatic schemes: while the former favours warm, brown hues, the latter is characterised by cold blue colours used to depict the mountains in the distance and the sky, which is penetrated by a beam of light coming from the right corner, directed at the protagonist. The saint is depicted in a kneeling position, his arms spread in a gesture of devotion, while next to him we see his attributes of the crucifix, the skull and the open book. A large rock extends from the middle ground into the background: it reflects more light than that of the darker foreground, against which the figure of the saint is set, and its vegetation is more abundant. The rock leads the eye toward the church in the distance and the landscape which continues behind it.

The theme of a saint set in a landscape was dear to 16th-century Flemish culture; in Italy the genre was magnificently represented by Girolamo Muziano, whose landscapes with hermits also became the subject of a successful series of engravings by Cornelius Cort in the 1570s. Cort’s production indeed played a role in popularising this genre (see Cappelletti, op. cit., ch. IV for a detailed treatment of this theme).

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • X. Barbier de Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Rome 1870, p. 358;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 386;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 139;
  • A. Mayer, Das Leben und die Werke der Brüder Matthäeus und Paul Brill, Leipzig 1910, p. 76;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 201;
  • L. Van Puyvelde, La Peinture Flamande à Rome, Bruxelles 1950, p. 74;
  • H. Wagner, Michelangelo da Caravaggio, Bern 1958, p. 208, nota 455;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 152, n. 213;
  • R. Magrì, in Rubens e Roma, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 1990), a cura di S. Guarino, R. Magri, Roma 1990, p. 40, n. 4;
  • F. Cappelletti, Paul Bril e la pittura di paesaggio a Roma 1580-1630, Roma 2006, pp. 178-179, nota 38;
  • 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. 89.