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Naval battle against the Grande Armada

Attributed to Vroom Henrdick Cornelisz

(Haarlem 1566 - 1640)

First documented in connection with the Borghese Collection in 1650, this painting depicts the famous open-sea battle of 1588 fought by the allied Dutch and English against the great Spanish Armada. It shows several sailing ships, two of which in the foreground display battle standards with the Immaculate Conception and coats of arms with heraldic emblems. From a stylistic point of view, the work is quite close to the 16th-century production of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; critics have attributed it to Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, the Flemish painter who specialised in marine art.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 112 x 187

Salvator Rosa, 131 x 182 x 8 cm


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650; Della Pergola 1959); Inv. 1693, room XI, no. 32; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 34; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


In basso a sinistra: '444'

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1994 Laboratorio di restauro


The provenance of this painting is still unknown. It was first documented as forming part of the Borghese Collection in 1650, when Iacomo Manilli described it as a ‘naval battle, by a Flemish painter’. Transferred sometime before 1693 to the Palazzo di Campo Marzio, it was listed in the inventory of that year with the number ‘444’ – still visible on the canvas – and ascribed in that document to an anonymous artist.

The compiler of the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario made the curious attribution to Filippo Lauri. This name was accepted by both Giovanni Piancastelli (1891) and Adolfo Venturi (1893), but rightly rejected by Roberto Longhi (1928), who limited himself to a generic attribution to the mid-17th century Flemish school.

After being neglected for decades, in 1983 Margarita Russell correctly ascribed the painting to Hendrick Vroom, a Flemish painter who became an expert in marine art. He was active in Italy from the 1580s. Comparing the Borghese canvas with the Naval Battle in Lisbon (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, inv. no. 79) and with a similar composition in the Museum of Fine Arts of Budapest, Russell in fact confidently ascribed the work in question to Vroom; later critics agreed with her (Herrmann Fiore 1995; Id. 2006).

According to Kristina Herrmann Fiore (1995), in all likelihood the canvas was executed in Rome for Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, perhaps in the context of the powerful prelate’s wish to reinforce the image of the House of Medici in Rome; from here, the work passed from Ferdinando’s estate into Scipione Borghese’s impressive collection, together with the paintings by Jacopo Zucchi. While perfectly credible, this theory is still in need of supporting evidence: in his capacity as protector of Flanders, Cardinal Borghese could well have obtained the canvas by other means, perhaps as a gift received for his efforts to promote the interests of that region.

This naval battle scene shows a Spanish ship, recognisable from the flag with the Immaculate Conception, which is being attacked by a Dutch vessel, whose flag with blue, white and red stripes indicates that it is of the Principality of Orange. On the right, another ship sailing under the Stuart flags – one with a gryphon and a lion, the other with lilies and lions – represents the English, who on this occasion allied with the Dutch to defeat Catholic Spain. The scene has been identified as a representation of the naval battle fought in 1588 against the great Armada; it was probably painted by Vroom between 1588 and 1590 (Herrmann Fiore 1995), the period in which the artist was still under the influence of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as the bird’s-eye perspective and the intensive use of chiaroscuro suggest.

The Flemish painter returned to this subject several times, including in a version executed in 1595 for Lord Charles Howard, admiral of the English fleet.

Antonio Iommelli

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 109;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 350;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 168;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 209;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 170-171, n. 249;
  • P. della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (III), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXX, 1965, p. 215;
  • M. Russell, Visions of the sea: Hendrick C. Vroom and the origins of Dutch marine painting, Leiden 1983, p. 113;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Disegni di Michelangelo in omaggio a Vittoria Colonna e tracce del poema di Dante, in Michelangelo e Dante, catalogo della mostra (Casa di Dante in Abruzzo, Torre de' Passeri, 1995), Milano 1995, pp. 95-112;
  • 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. 114.