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Perseus and Andromeda (recto); Venus and Adonis (verso)

Tempesta Antonio

(Florence 1555 - Rome 1630)

The precious oval painted on two sides, set in a frame that allows the two sides to be seen, illustrates two scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the episode of Perseus freeing Andromeda from the monster and that of Adonis, Venus’s beloved, being killed by the boar. The artist is Antonio Tempesta, an expert in painting on stone. Here too, he shows his sophisticated ability in exploiting the natural colours of the mineral and integrating them into the representation.

Object details

secondo decennio del XVII secolo ?
tempera and oil on lapis lazuli
23 x 17 x 0,2 cm

Collezione Borghese, Inv. 1693, room after the Gallery, nos.; Inv. c.1700, stanza [room] VIII; Inv. 1790, cabinet, nos.; Inv. 1812, no. 41. Purchased by the former Special Superintendency for the Historic, Artistic and Ethno-anthropological Heritage and for the Museums of the City of Rome in 2005.

  • 2015 Roma, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant'Angelo
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 2022 diagnostics: Erredicci; IFAC-CNR; Arsmensurae di Stefano Ridolfi; Artelab di Domenico Poggi. Francesco Marsili (macro photography). Matilde Migliorini (restoration)


The very thin oval slab of lapis lazuli is painted on both sides with episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: on one side is the myth of Andromeda chained to the rock looking up at Perseus, who rides Pegasus and is about to spear the sea monster; on the other side is Venus who, having come to Adonis’ rescue in vain, discovers her beloved’s body slain by the ferocious wild boar.

The precious piece, now attributed to Antonio Tempesta, is mentioned for the first time in the Borghese collection in the inventory of 1693 (Della Pergola 1965, p. 212), where it appears, unattributed, in the “room past the gallery” of the palace in Campo Marzio, displayed as a pendant to another, recently identified by Andrea G. De Marchi in a private collection. It has the same shape and is similarly painted on both sides, depicting the Fall of Phaethon and the Rape of Ganymede: “(646) two small paintings on lapis lazuli with two oval sides and a diameter of a palm and a quarter, on one side the Fall of Phaethon from the Chariot and on the other the Rape of Ganymede, on the other side Andromeda tied to a rock and on the other a woman pulled in a chariot by two swans with a gilded copper frame and silver hanging attachments [...] uncertain”.

Cupid appears on both sides of the oval on exhibit. He is in the act of shooting an arrow in the scene with Andromeda and Perseus, indicating that the hero’s gesture is motivated by a love that blossomed at the sight of the young princess condemned to sacrifice herself to atone for her mother’s pride. In Ovid’s tale, Cupid is not actually present, just as the winged horse Pegasus, included in later versions of the myth, does not appear.

On the other hand, in the scene with the death of Adonis, Cupid does not shoot the bow but holds the arrow in his hand and watches the tragic outcome of the event for which he is not to blame, since his mother Venus, according to Ovid’s tale, had accidentally scratched herself with the tip of one of his arrows. Not even the goddess of love can save the young hunter from his inevitable fate.

The composition of the paintings shows Tempesta’s talent in the use of the different shades of lapis lazuli. In the seascape, the figures, with minute details, such as the reflections on Perseus’ shield, and the vivid colours of the fabrics, make way for the blue of the background, which the pyrite inclusions animate dramatically. Andromeda stands out, with a play of shadows, against the light-coloured rock skilfully painted on the part of the slab where calcite prevails; on the horizon and below, the pyrite inclusions are accentuated by touches of brown, to suggest the outcrops of rocks in a dark and mysterious cove from which the monster appears.

In the Death of Adonis, the goddess, having rushed to the scene, leans out over her chariot to weep over the body of her beloved, rendered in a masterful foreshortening and perfectly placed in the lower space of the oval. Venus is surrounded by white clouds, exploiting the natural colour of that part of the support, while Adonis, against a black background, now seems to belong to the dimension of the underworld. The details of the shoulder straps of the breastplate adorned with masks are exquisite, as are the fibulae fastening Venus’ mantle. The blue background prevails in the sky and landscape, with rocks and small waterfalls, in between which a wild boar chased by dogs can be glimpsed, a composition widely used by the artist in his numerous works on the theme of hunting.

Both paintings show clear iconographic similarities with two engravings by Tempesta in the famous Metamorphoseon published in 1606 (The Illustrated Bartsch 1983, pp. 29, no. 677 (151), 57, no. 733, no. 151; Leuschner 2005, pp. 437-438). The comparison, also compositional, with the print depicting Venus and Adonis is particularly compelling and has suggested that the oval could be dated not far from this edition (Costamagna 2005, p. 13), a hypothesis recently revised in light of the Borghese lapis lazuli’s possible provenance from the work undertaken in the Cappella Paolina in Santa Maria Maggiore.

The room where the oval and its pendant were exhibited, together with other predominantly medium or small-sized works, had been reorganised during the 1680s at the behest of Giovanni Battista Borghese, evidently intended for the collection of precious artefacts due to their rarity, originality or the quality of the materials used. In addition to various drawings and paintings on copper and the mosaics by Marcello Provenzale still preserved in the gallery today, such as the Portrait of Paul V and the Orpheus, works made on various types of stone support, from jasper to ruin marble, alabaster and lapis lazuli, were also found here. With reference to the latter material, there are two other unattributed paintings, again with mythological subjects and an oval format, one of which is painted on two sides, the dimensions of which appear slightly different to the work examined here (Della Pergola 1965, pp. 207, 209).

Tempesta’s name is instead explicitly mentioned in the description of four other oval-format works on lapis lazuli: a Hunt, recognised by Collomb (2015, pp. 116, 346, no. 79) in the Hunting Scene in the Alessandra Di Castro collection; a Baptism of Christ and a Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem as well as a scene with “Christ with the Apostles, three other figures in a Boat” (Della Pergola 1965, pp. 208, 209, 210 respectively). The latter painting was identified in a private collection by Lohff (2015, p. 193), who doubtfully attributes it to the painter, noting the all too frequent custom of associating this type of painting with Tempesta, whether executed on lapis lazuli or more generally on stone, given the success and popularity of this genre also in the work of other contemporary artists such as Filippo Napoletano.

The painting in question is also clearly mentioned in later inventories, albeit with different attributions: to Giulio Romano in 1700 (De Rinaldis 1936, p. 204), and to Passignano in 1790 (De Rinaldis 1937b, p. 226). It was only in the inventory of 1812 (S. Tarissi de Jacobis 2003, p. lll) that the two works, listed together with the Adam and Eve executed on parchment, conserved in the Galleria Borghese (inv. 528), were associated for the first time with the name of Antonio Tempesta: “A panel with three miniatures, one of Adam and Eve by Cavalier d’Arpino, and the two others painted on two sides on lapis lazuli representing fables by Antonio Tempesta”. The exact time when the oval painting was acquired remains undefined. It may date back to well before the end of the 17th century, especially in view of the appreciation shown by Cardinal Scipione Borghese for polychrome stone works, as well as the number of works commissioned from Tempesta from the beginning of Paul V’s pontificate.

The painting did not become part of the 1833 fideicommissary and in 2005 was purchased from the heirs of the Borghese family by the Superintendency for the Historic, Artistic and Ethno-anthropological Heritage and for the Museums of the City of Rome in 2005 for the Galleria Borghese.

Marina Minozzi

  • A. De Rinaldis, Documenti inediti per la storia della R. Galleria Borghese in Roma. II. Una inedita nota settecentesca delle opere pittoriche nel palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio, «Archivi», III, 1936, pp. 194-206
  • A. De Rinaldis, Documenti inediti per la storia della R. Galleria Borghese in Roma. III. Un catalogo della quadreria Borghese nel palazzo a Campo Marzio, redatto nel 1760, «Archivi», s. II, IV, 1937, pp. 218-232, p. 226, nn. 7-8
  • P. Della Pergola, L’inventario Borghese del 1693. III, «Arte antica e moderna», VIII, 30, 1965, pp. 202-217, in part. p. 212, n. 646
  • The Illustrated Bartsch, XXXVI (17/3), Antonio Tempesta, a cura di Sebastian Buffa, New York, Abaris Book, 1983
  • S. Tarissi de Jacobis, in Villa Borghese. I principi, le arti, la città dal Settecento all’Ottocento, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Villa Poniatowski, 2003-2004), a cura di Alberta Campitelli, Milano, Skira, 2003, p. lll
  • A. Costamagna, La raffinatezza e il lusso, Lo "stile" Borghese dal cardinale Scipione ai principi Camillo e Paolina in quattro piccoli "tesori" artistici, Roma 2005, pp. 8-14
  • E. Leuschner, Antonio Tempesta. Ein Bahnbrecher des römischen Barock und seine europäische Wirkung, Petersberg, Imhof, 2005
  • M. Minozzi, in Lo stato dell’arte 2015 = Lo stato dell’arte, l’arte dello stato. Le acquisizioni del Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo. Colmare le lacune, ricucire la storia, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, 2015), Roma, Gangemi, 2015
  • A.-L. Collomb, Dall’ardesia alle pietre semipreziose. La pittura su pietra in Italia nel XVI e XVII secolo, in Lapislazzuli 2015, pp. 111-120
  • J.B. Lohff, Malerei auf Stein. Antonio Tempestas Bilder auf Stein im Kontext der Kunst- und Naturtheorie seiner Zeit, München, Hirmer, 2015, pp. 190-191, n. 3.2