The canvas comes from Villa Mondragone in Monte Porzio Catone, and was purchased by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1613. The grandeur of the composition and sculpted monumentality of the figures are characteristic of Lanfranco’s mature phase, from around 1619 and 1621, when he was working on the design for the decoration of the Loggia of Blessings in St. Peter’s in the Vatican.
The canvas’ subject illustrates an episode from Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, modelled on the Homeric story of Ulysses and Polyphemus, the tale in which Norandino, the king of Damascus, and his wife Lucina, are forced to take refuge on the island of Sarpanto, inhabited by the giant Ogre who surprises the maiden when she attempts to flee by mingling with the flock.
Salvator Rosa, 300 x 432 x 13 cm
Frascati, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1619-1621 (Schleier 2002, pp, 198-200); Inv. 1693, room III, no. 19; Inv. 1700, room III, no. 72; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
This work was executed by the painter from Parma upon a commission by Scipione Borghese, who asked for a painting for his new ‘Mondragone’ villa in the Roman quarter of Tuscolano, which he purchased from Duke Gian Angelo Altemps in 1613. Mentioned by Lanfranco’s two main biographers, Giovan Pietro Bellori and Giovanni Battista Passeri, the work depicts an episode from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (canto XVII, octaves 26-65). The scene has rarely been represented in painting and was in fact misnamed by Bellori, who confused it with the similar story of Ulysses and Polyphemus narrated by Homer in the Odyssey. As Eric Schleier noted (2002, p. 198), the first writer to identify the episode and correctly name its source – Ariosto’s tale of the ogre – was Passeri, and not the author of the French edition of Mariano Vasi’s Itinerario di Roma, as Paola della Pergola had stated (1955, p. 53). The tale in fact has several elements in common with Ulysses’ adventure in the land of the Cyclops: yet it actually narrates the story of Norandino, King of Damascus, and Lucina, the beautiful young princess who was daughter of the wealthy and powerful ruler of Cyprus. After marrying, the couple are shipwrecked on Scarpanto while returning from Syria. This island is inhabited by a sea ogre, who although blind captures Lucina and her companions. Norandino, meanwhile, learns from the ogre’s wife that the cannibalistic monster does not eat women. The king manages to penetrate the darkness of the grotto and reveals his plan for escape to his friends: they would cover themselves in smelly fat and put on sheep’s wool and deceive the unsuspecting giant with their disguise. Yet in spite of this clever plan, Lucina fails to escape: recognising her by touch at the edge of the cave, the monster grabs her, takes her back to the depths of the prison and chains her to a rock.
Closely following the verses of Ariosto, Lanfranco decided to depict the precise instant in which Norandino turns around to look at his beloved, who is shown while trying to cross the mouth of the grotto: ‘Him, turning at the scream, I saw uncase / Already her whom he had made his prize’ (octave 57). As we see, the scene is set in a landscape which Schleier defined as ‘neo-Annibalesque’. Together with the robust and vigorous rendering of the figures, the setting – in this scholar’s view – justifies dating the painting to the second decade of the 17th century (Schleier 2002, p 198). Yet in fact critics are not in agreement as to the year of the work’s execution: while Salerno (1952, 1958) and Posner (1965) dated it to roughly 1605, Della Pergola (1955) proposed 1615, seeing in it stylistic affinities with the Hercules, Nessus and Deianira of Palazzo Costaguti, a fresco which, though, was not painted until about 1630. In his first treatments of the painting, Schleier dated it to the early 1620s (1964, 1965), later to roughly 1624-1625 (1983, 1988) and finally to 1619-1621, when Lanfranco developed a more dynamic, Baroque idiom in the wake of his design for the decoration of the vault of the Loggia of the Blessings in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. According to this critic, evidence of this changed style is apparent in this work, which was commissioned by Scipione Borghese in the final years of Paul V’s pontificate, when the painter was in the pope’s good graces.
The painting was placed in the gallery of the villa in Toscolano, which was finished in 1619 – as revealed ‘by its foundations […] with the names of the builders’ (Grossi Gondi 1901, p. 102, no. 3). Father Sebastiano Resta saw the painting in the villa in 1677, although he mistook the subject and confused the work with one by Annibale Carracci: ‘on the front of the Mondragone Galleria there is a landscape by Annibale, as large as the entire façade, some 14 paces, depicting Polyphemus counting the sheep, among which is the fleeing Ulysses, disguised as a sheep, while another shepherd runs away’ (Le Postille di Padre Resta 2016, p. 47). The painting would be held here until the 1690s: in 1693, it was in fact mentioned as being in Palazzo Borghese in Ripetta, specifically in the third room of the ground floor, where it would remain until 1902, the year the collection was sold to the Italian state.
A small-format derivation of the painting, attributed by Alloisi (1996, pp. 161-162) to Antonino Alberti, known as Barbalonga, is held by the Galleria Corsini (inv. no. 267). This work was purchased by Cardinal Neri Maria Corsini and described in the inventories as the ‘tale of Polyphemus and Acis, in the style of Domenichino’ (Magnanimi 1980, p. 98, no. 80). An engraving of the work was made by Domenico Cunego in 1772 and published the following year in Gavin Hamilton’s Schola Italica picturae (1773, no. 39).