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Minerva Dressing

Fontana Lavinia

(Bologna 1552 - Rome 1614)

The work, which dates back to 1613, was painted in Rome, evoked here through the dome of St. Peter’s visible in the background. The painting depicts Minerva, goddess of wisdom, who has just laid down her weapons to put on a sumptuous feminine dress. Recognisable in the background, in a vanishing point prospective, are the staff, olive tree and owl, the warrior goddess’ usual attributes.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 258 x 190

19th-century frame with a frieze decorated with lotus flowers and palmettes,  293 x 224.5 x 11.5 cm


Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1613 (Della Pergola 1955, p. 35); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 11; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

"FACIEBAT MDCXIII" sotto il piede dell'amorino seduto; "679" in basso a sinistra.
  • 1994 Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico;
  • 1997-1998 Washington, National Museum of Woman in the Arts;
  • 2007-2008 Londra, Barbican Art Gallery;
  • 2018-2019 Gand, Musée des Beaux Arts de Gand;
  • 2019-2020 Madrid, Museo del Prado.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1779 Domenico De Angelis (documentato in Della Pergola 1955)
  • 1954 Alvaro Esposti e Maria Monasterio
  • 1994 Paola Azzaretti
  • 2021 Leonardo Severini


The painting was made by Lavinia Fontana in 1613, as is suggested both by the inscription – which appears beneath the foot of the seated cherub – and by a payment by Cardinal Scipione made out to Annibale Durante, the carpenter of the Borghese household, for a frame ‘[…] for the Pallas by Mrs Lavinia Fontana, 13 spans high by 8’ (Della Pergola 1955, p. 35). The work was either purchased by or donated to Scipione (Herrmann Fiore 2018). It was certainly painted in Rome by the eminent Bolognese artist, as is indicated by the dome of St Peter’s Basilica visible in the background. The view of the church is partially obstructed by a dark wall, which highlights the delicate features of the goddess of wisdom.

The first mentions of the work are found in a text by Domenico Montelatici from 1700, who describes it as an ‘idea of Titian’s’. In spite of the fact that the date and the signature were clearly visible at the time, in 1818 Mariano Vasi attributed the work to Padovanino, a designation which was later upheld by Antonio Nibby (1824), Giovanni Piancastelli (1891) and Adolfo Venturi (1893) but forcefully rejected by Roberto Longhi (1928) and Giuseppe Fiocco (1926), who rather proposed Girolamo Forabosco as its creator. While Aldo De Rinaldis (1939) attributed it to the seventeenth-century Veneto school, in 1955 Paola della Pergola justly recognised that the painting was the work of the Bolognese artist, basing her opinion on documentary analysis. Critics then accepted this attribution, in particular Eleanor Tufts, who in 1974 noticed a similarity between the landscape of this work and that of Fontana’s The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, held by the National Gallery of Ireland (inv. no. 76).

The painting depicts Minerva in an unusual way. She is not only the goddess of wisdom and the arts but also – according to mythology – protectress of spinners, as appears to be suggested by the precious garments that the divinity is about to put on. At her feet are visible a shield and armour: these, together with the owl on the bannister in front of the olive branches and the helmet held by the cherub, are among her typical iconographic attributes. In the view of Silvia Urbini (1994, p. 207), the subject of this work has its source in two texts of the sixteenth century: Vincenzo Cartari’s Le imagini degli Dei degli Antichi (‘The images of the gods of the ancients’) and Achille Bocchi’s Symbolicae questiones, a work published in Bologna in 1555 containing several engravings by Andrea Alciati and Giulio Bonasone, which probably inspired the subject of this painting.

Several years earlier, in 1604-5, the artist painted a similar work, which today forms part of the Pavirani Collection in Bologna. It was commissioned by Marco Sittico Altemps, whose name – as Patrizia Tosini recently discovered (2019, pp 225-228) – appears in the 1605 poem by Ottaviano Rabasco, entitled La Pallade ignuda della famosa pittrice Lavinia Fontana (‘The nude Pallas by the famous painter Lavinia Fontana’). The commission of this work, which was painted in Bologna and Rome, was certainly linked to that of our Minerva Dressing, which Scipione Borghese requested several years later: after seeing the painting mentioned in the poem at the house of Altemps, Borghese probably asked the painter for a similar subject, which would surely have to be on a par with those works of his rich collection that depicted Venus.

  • D. Montelatici, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana con l’ornamenti che si osservano nel di lei Palazzo, Roma 1700, p. 279;
  • M. Vasi, Itinerario (cfr. 1786), 1818, p. 261;
  • A. Nibby, Itinerario di Roma e delle sue vicinanze compilato già da Mariano Vasi, ora riveduto, corretto e accresciuto dal Professore Antonio Nibby, Roma 1824, p. 311;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 61;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 24;
  • G. Fiocco, Gerolamo Forabosco ritrattista, in “Belvedere”, IX-X, 1926, p. 24;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 176;
  • A. De Rinaldis, La Galleria Borghese in Roma (Itinerari dei Musei e Monumenti d’Italia), Roma 1939, p. 9;
  • P. Della Pergola, Contributi per la Galleria Borghese, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, XXXIX, 1954, pp. 134-35;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 36, n. 44;
  • R. Longhi, Saggi e ricerche 1925-28. Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. La Galleria Borghese, Firenze 1967, p. 331;
  • E. Tufts, Mss. L. Fontana from Bologna, in “Art News”, LXXIII, 1974, pp. 60-64;
  • Pittura bolognese del ‘500, a cura di V. Fortunati Pierantonio, II, Bologna 1986, pp. 727-735;
  • M.T. Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana bolognese: “pittora singolare”, 1552-1614, Milano 1989, pp. 222-224;
  • S. Urbini, in Lavinia Fontana: 1552–1614, catalogo della mostra (Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico, 1994), a cura di V. Fortunati Pietrantonio, Milano 1994, p. 207, n. 74;
  • A.M. Fioravanti Baraldi, in Lavinia Fontana of Bologna: 1552 – 1614, catalogo della mostra (Washington DC, National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1998), a cura di V. Fortunati, Milano 1998, p. 108, n. 30;
  • C. Stefani, scheda in Galleria Borghese, a cura di P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Milano 2000, p. 156;
  • M. Wallace, scheda in Seduced. Art and sex from antiquity to now, catalogo della mostra (London, Barbican Centre for Arts and Conferences, 2007-2008), a cura di M. Wallace, M. Kemp, J. Bernstein, London 2007, p. 81;
  • 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. 10;
  • L. De Girolami Cheney, ’Lavinia Fontana’s Nude Minervas’, in "Woman’s Art Journal", XXXVI, 2015, pp. 30-40;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Uno sguardo enigmatico nella Galleria Borghese: la Minerva di Lavinia Fontana del 1613, in Vivace con espressione..., a cura di M. von Bernstorff, S. Kubersky-Piredda, M. Cicconi, Munich 2018, pp. 135-161;
  • C. Lollobrigida, in Les Dames du Baroque. Femmes peintres dans l’Italie du XVIe et XVIIe siècle, catalogo della mostra (Gand, Musée des Beaux Arts, 2018-2019), Gand 2018, p. 98, n. 20;
  • P. Tosini, Ottaviano Rabasco, un letterato dimenticato nella Roma di Caravaggio e La Pallade Ignuda di Lavinia Fontana per Marco Sittico Altemps IV, in Caravaggio ed i letterati, atti del convegno (Roma 2018), a cura di S. Ebert-Schifferer, L. Teza, Todi 2019, pp. 125-140;
  • P. Tosini, scheda in A tale of Two women painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, catalogo della mostra (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2019-2020), a cura di L. Ruiz Gómez, Madrid 2019, pp. 228-229;
  • L. De Girolami Cheney, Lavinia Fontana’s Mythological Paintings: Art, Beauty and Wisdom, Newcastle upon Tyne 2020, pp. 117-132.