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Massacre of the Innocents

Scarsella Ippolito called Scarsellino

(Ferrara c. 1550 - 1620)

This painting on copper is in a style from a slightly later period than the other works by Scarsellino in the Galleria. The composition of the painting, equally divided between an upper register dominated by massive columns and a lower register crowded with tangled, contorted figures, reveals Scarsellino’s attempt to adopt the new classical style promoted by the Carracci, through the reformulation of a theme masterfully treated by Guido Reni. This style would not prove to be particularly congenial to the painter’s expressive gifts, his best works being those in the lyrical vein of myth and fable.

Object details

c. 1610
oil on copper
cm 40 x 51,5

Borghese collection, documented in Inv. 1693, room III, no. 143; Inv. 1790, room IV, no. 53; Inventario fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 27. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1936 Augusto Cecconi Principi
  • 1953 Mauro Manca (cleaning)
  • 2019 Fabiola Jatta
  • 2020 Measure 3D di Danilo Salzano (laser scan 3D)
  • 2020 Erredicci (diagnostics)
  • 2021 IFAC-CNR (diagnostics)
  • 2021 Ars Mensurae di Stefano Ridolfi (diagnostics)


This painting by Scarsellino is the final result of the painter’s interesting artistic reflection on the theme of the Massacre of the Innocents, considering that it was preceded by a similar painting on copper in a private collection that would have been a preliminary study for the Borghese painting (Novelli 2008, p. 322, cat. 212).

The first inventory citation of the small picture dates to 1693, where we read: ‘painting on copper with the massacre of the Innocents of no. 257 gilt frame by Scarsellin of Ferrara’.  However, the authorship of the work was not recognised in the subsequent inventories, and both the inventory of 1790 and the Fidecommisso inventory of 1833 attribute it to Paolo Veronese, partially connecting it, therefore, to the attribution history of another painting by Scarsellino, the Supper in the House of Simon (inv. 169). The reference to Veronese and his milieu is in fact not at all surprising for a work by Ippolito Scarsella, since even the biography by the abbot Girolamo Baruffaldi (1675–1753/1755) refers to him as the ‘Paolo of the Ferrara artists’, for his expansive convivial compositions in a classicising architectural setting.

Here, the Biblical episode unfolds in front of a simple ancient Roman building with a portico of smooth columns, only partially visible to the viewer, while the device of a lowered horizon provides a glimpse of the ruins of an ancient city in the distance, enveloped by the dark, foggy air of what seems to be a stormy dawn. In the foreground we see a tangle of bodies described with anatomical precision. The knots of physical struggle, which oscillate between the bodies of soldiers at the height of their muscular tension, the desperate faces and maddened gestures of the mothers and the lifeless bodies of their infants, evokes what Scarsellino would have undoubtedly been able to study and admire on Roman sarcophagi depicting centauromachies, Amazonomachies and other mythological battles.

In this composition, we can detect the artist’s assimilation of the theme of the Massacre of the Innocents through the famous engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi (circa 1480–1534) after a drawing by Raphael (Herrmann Fiore 2002; Novelli 2008): whereas in the sixteenth-century work the women’s agitation and anguish is contained in the  decorum of their sculptural bodies and the classically rational organisation of the architecture, the narrative structure is drastically changed in Scarsellino’s painting, towards tragic theatricality and the realistic portrayal of human emotion, a development begun in Ferrara painting by artists like Ludovico Mazzolino (circa 1480–1658), who painted a work on the same subject, now in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome (inv. FC 248), in which we find these same initial, interesting attempts.

The dating of the painting to the first decade of the seventeenth century, proposed by Berenson (1968) and reasserted by Herrmann Fiore (2002), is supported by the strong influence of Caravaggio, seen in the alternation of saturated spaces and large voids, creating a strong chiaroscuro effect, and the technical innovation of using copper as a support, a practice in use in the early seventeenth century in particular for small- and medium-format paintings by Flemish artists active in Rome, like Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610).

Lara Scanu

  • X. Barbier De Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Roma 1870, p. 361, n. 19
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 125
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 197
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’arte italiana, IX, 7, Milano 1934, pp. 812
  • B. Berenson, Pitture italiane del Rinascimento. Catalogo dei principali artisti e delle loro opere con un indice dei luoghi, Milano 1936, p. 445
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, pp. 67-68, n. 119
  • M.A. Novelli, Lo Scarsellino, Bologna 1955, p. 67
  • P. Della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693, «Arte Antica e Moderna», 26, 1964, n. 143
  • M.A. Novelli, Lo Scarsellino, Ferrara 1964, p. 67
  • B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools, I, London 1968, p. 391
  • A. Coliva, Galleria Borghese, Roma 1994, fig. 80
  • C. Stefani, in Galleria Borghese, a cura di P. Moreno e C. Stefani, Milano 2000, p. 254, n. 3
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Il museo senza confini. Dipinti ferraresi del Rinascimento nelle raccolte romane, a cura di J. Bentini e S. Guarino, Milano 2002, p. 215, scheda 47
  • M.A. Novelli, Scarsellino, Milano 2008, p. 311, cat. 134