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Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Cresti Domenico called Passignano

(Passignano 1559 - Florence 1638)

The work on copper, attributed by critics to Domenico Cresti il Passignano, was most likely among the confiscated works of Cavalier d’Arpino, stolen from the painter in 1607 when he was accused of illegal possession of firearms. The work shows an unusual moment in the Passio of Sebastian, when the martyr’s body, pierced by arrows, is deposed by three men, one portrayed while manoeuvring the rope from which the saint is hanging. The scene takes place outdoors, in front of a tree whose foliage hides the landscape in the background, allowing for a glimpse of a small turreted village in the distance.


Object details

late 16th century
oil on copper
35 x 26 cm

Salvator Rosa, 43 x 93.5 x 4 cm


(?) Rome, collection of Giuseppe Cesari, called Cavalier d’Arpino, 1607 (Inv. 1607, no. 34; Della Pergola 1959); (?) Rome, collection of Scipione Borghese, 1607; Inv. 1693, room IX, no. 102; Inv. 1700, room IX, no. 14; Inv. 1790, room II, no. 41; Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 39; purchased by the Italian State, 1902


Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1936 Augusto Cecconi Principi (pulitura e verniciatura)


This painting on copper was likely among the works belonging to Cavalier d’Arpino that were sequestered in 1607 by the tax officials of Paul V, identified by scholars as the ‘small painting on copper of a St Sebastian with no frame’, listed in the relative inventory as number ‘34’ (Della Pergola 1959). Having entered the Borghese Collection, the work was described in 1693 as in the Campo Marzio residence, with an attribution to Martiniani, a name changed in 1700 to one or the other of the two Zuccari and listed as such in both the inventory of 1790 and the fideicommissary inventory of 1833.

The painting was then correctly attributed to Domenico Cresti by Roberto Longhi (1928), after Adolfo Venturi had mistakenly attributed it to Simone Cantarini (1893) and it was incorrectly described by Giovanni Piancastelli in 1891 as a Crucifixion of St Andrew. The attribution to Passignano, accepted by Aldo de Rinaldis (1935), was confirmed by Paola della Pergola in 1959 and all subsequent scholars (Rozman 1974-1976; Nissman 1979).

The work depicts an unusual moment in the Passion of St Sebastian, when the body of the martyr, pierced with arrows, is taken down from the tree by three men, one of whom moves the rope from which the saint was hung. The scene takes place outdoors, in front of a tree the top of which conceals the landscape in the background, where we can glimpse a small turreted village in the distance.

According to Simonetta Prosperi Valenti Rodinò (1984), the work was painted in about 1602-1603 at the same time as two others in the Borghese Collection – an Annunciation (inv. 189) and an Entombment of Christ (inv. 349) – shortly after the artist’s arrival in Rome to work on one of the most prestigious commissions of his career, the Crucifixion of St Peter for the Vatican Basilica. In fact, the composition of the work is Tuscan in taste and old fashioned in comparison to other works produced in Rome at the time.

The painter portrayed this subject on several occasions: an early painting of the Entombment of St Sebastian now in Naples at the Museo di Capodimonte, one of St Sebastian Found in the Cloaca Massima that was painted in 1612 for the Barberini Chapel in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Rome and various paintings, now lost but in all probability of the martyr saint, made when the painter is documented to have been working in the chapel dedicated to St Sebastian in the Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati between 1614 and 1616.

Antonio Iommelli

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 475; 
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 167; 
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, Arch. Gall. Borghese, 1911-1912., n. 341; 
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 209; 
  • A. De Rinaldis, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1935, p. 20; 
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 42, n. 58; 
  • K. Rozman, Painter Franc Kavčič/caucig and his drawings of old masterpieces, in “Zbornik za umetnostno zgodovino”, XI-XII, 1974-1976, pp. 57-58; 
  • J. Nissman, Domenico Cresti il Passignano, tesi di dottorato (Columbia University 1979), New York 1979, p. 366; 
  • S. Prosperi Valenti Rodinò, Cresti, Domenico, detto il Passignano, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, XXX, 1984, ad vocem;
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 34; 
  • 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. 112.