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Landscape with the Temple of the Sybil

Bril Paul

(Antwerp 1554 - Rome 1626)

Signed and dated ‘P. Bril 1595’, this painting depicts a fantastic moonlit landscape with the temple of the Sybil of Tivoli in the background. The subject appealed greatly to Flemish painters travelling in Italy. The small work was executed as the pendant of the Landscape with a Landing (inv. no. 513), which has the same dimensions and support material as well as the same history as a collector’s piece. The pair was probably purchased by Cardinal Scipione Borghese; they were first mentioned in connection with the family Collection in the inventory of 1693.

Object details

oil on copper
cm 11 x 17

late 18th-/early 19th-century frame, part of a polyptych, 14.5 x 109.3 x 2.3 cm


Collection of Scipione Borghese (?), first cited in Inv. 1693, room XI, no. 11; Inv. 1790, room VII, nos 57-58; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 26, nos 12-13; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1995 Bruxelles, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1952 Augusto Vermehren


Signed and dated ‘P. Bril 1595’, this small oil on copper depicts a Landscape with the Temple of the Sybil. Paola Della Pergola (1959, p. 148, no. 206) deemed the inscription authentic and to have been perfectly incorporated into the painting itself.

The work was first mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in the 1693 inventory, where it is described as ‘a small painting on copper with a landscape, two-thirds of a span high, no. 776. Black frame, by Paul Bril’. The details of this entry correspond to those of the work in question; further confirmation is provided by the number 776, which was added in paint on the left side of the composition.

In the view of Della Pergola (1959), the work is referred to in the 1790 inventory in the generic entry ‘two landscapes, Paul Bril’. Here it is catalogued together with its pendant, the Landscape with a Landing (inv. no. 513), with which it shares the same dimensions and technique. The two works are again listed as a pair in the 1833 Inventario fidecommissario, this time with their measurements and support material: ‘Two landscapes on copper, by Paul Bril, 9 inches wide, 6 inches high’.

The attribution to Bril, indicated both in the signature and the Borghese inventories, has not been challenged by critics, whether in the past or more recently (Piancastelli 1891, p. 384; Venturi 1893, p. 220; Longhi 1828, p. 224; Della Pergola 1959; Pijl 1995, p. 98, no. 28; Cappelletti 2006, p. 220, no. 20). Even Anton Mayer (1910, p. 76), who could not read the signature because it was covered by the frame, did not doubt that this was an autograph work.

Critics have likewise accepted the date of 1595 present on the painting, noting that it is stylistically consistent with other works by the artist from that period. It clearly predates the later phase of his career, when Bril first came into contact with Scipione Borghese, which according to our sources occurred in 1611-12.

While the circumstances of the entry of the pair of works into the family Collection are unclear, critics believe that it occurred shortly after their execution, roughly the period in which the artist first met the cardinal, or perhaps somewhat later, in the context of the sale of paintings left by Bril upon his death. Both the format and technique used for the two paintings suggest that they were the result of a specific commission (Cappelletti 2006, p. 219, no. 19).

Luk Pijl (1995, pp. 98-100, nos. 27-28) suggested that the paintings may have formed part of the collection of the painter Giuseppe Cesari, called Cavalier d’Arpino, whose goods were confiscated in 1607, coming then into the possession of Scipione Borghese. The lack of specific details in the inventory of confiscated works, however, makes it impossible to identify a number of works that came into the family Collection through this event, leaving open a number of possibilities; in any case, this hypothesis is not supported by any other facts.

The presence of autograph replicas of the Borghese pendants at the Wallraf Richartz Museum in  Cologne (see Cappelletti 2006, pp. 221-222, nos. 21-22) suggests the works enjoyed a certain popularity paired in this way, which was perhaps due to the evocative juxtaposition of a mountain landscape with a marine view.

Bril made several variations in the works held in Cologne. Above all, the Landscape with the Temple of the Sybil is set during the day, rather than at night as in the Borghese painting. The Landscape with a Landing, meanwhile, is the mirror image of the Roman version.

The work in question presents a rocky landscape crossed by a bridge on which two people move away from the viewer, one on foot and the other on horseback; they are followed by three dogs. On the left, the Temple of the Sybil of Tivoli is perched on a high ground: this structure exerted a great attraction on foreign painters travelling in Italy and is frequently found in their works. Bril’s representation of the temple is realistic, in spite of being immersed in a fantastic moonlit scene which betrays northern European influences. Dark, dense vegetation covers the steep lateral slopes, beyond which the rocky landscape extends into the depths, illuminated by the moon; the effect is to exalt the majestic character of the ancient temple in the distance.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 384;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 220;
  • A. Von Würzbach, Niederländisches Künstler-Lexikon, Wien-Leipzig 1906, p. 185;
  • 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. 224;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 148, n. 206;
  • G.T. Faggin, Per Paolo Brill, in “Paragone Arte”, CLXXXV, 1965, p. 34;
  • L. Pijl, in Fiamminghi a Roma 1508-1608. Artisti dei Paesi Bassi e del Principato di Liegi a Roma durante il Rinascimento, catalogo della mostra (Bruxelles, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 1995), a cura di A.C. De Liedekerke, Milano 1995, p. 98, n. 28;
  • F. Cappelletti, Paul Bril e la pittura di paesaggio a Roma 1580-1630, Roma 2006, p. 220, n. 20;
  • 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. 164.