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Priestess of Isis

Roman art

This statue represents a female figure wearing a long tunic beneath a mantel, called a himation, that is wrapped twice around the body. The drapery, which is pulled diagonally across the body and held at the shoulder, falling in dense vertical folds in high relief, is reminiscent of archaic models from the fifth century BCE. The iconographic type was typically used in Roman sculpture to depict priestesses of the goddess Isis.

Coming from the Ceoli Collection, which was sold to the Borghese family in 1607, the sculpture was restored in 1828 by the sculptor Giuseppe Boschi, who added the metal components referencing the goddess Isis: the lotus flower on the figure’s head, the sistrum in her right hand and the situla, a kind of pitcher, in her left. Displayed in Room VII in 1832, the statue can be dated to the early imperial period, based on stylistic analysis.


Object details

1st century B.C.
marmo bianco
height without plinth 183 cm; height with plinth 195 cm

Originally in the Ceoli Collection, it was sold to Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1607 (Gallottini 1995, p. 63, pl. 27.1; p. 79, no. 39, pl. 39). In the Borghese Collection, it is mentioned in the Quarta Nota (1828) among the statues selected to be restored and displayed in the galleries (Moreno, Sforzini 1987, p. 359); in 1832, it was installed in Room VII (Nibby 1832, pp. 118–119). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 53, no. 169. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1828 - ​​Restoration work on the nose and left ear, the cheeks, the right arm from the elbow down including the drapery below the elbow, incision of the pupils, the four locks of hair on the shoulders (an ancient component used to attach them to the shoulders is still, however, preserved), the upper part of the hair and the left arm. Giuseppe Boschi. Addition of bronze elements: the lotus flower on the head, the sistrum in the right hand and the pitcher in the left. Feet reattached.
  • 1996–97 ​Liana Persichelli


Between the late sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century, the sculpture was recorded in the Ceoli family collection in a drawing by Andrea Boscoli, preserved in the Louvre, bearing the annotation ‘del Sig. Tib. ceuoli in strada giulia’ (Paris, Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins, inv. 12305: Gallottini 1995, p. 63, pl. 27.1). The collection of ancient sculptures had been sold to Tiberio Ceoli by Giulio Ricci in 1576 along with the palazzo in via Giulia, designed by Antonio da Sangallo. In 1995, Gallottini speculated, after careful consideration, that the sculpture of a woman was already part of the Ricci Collection (pp. 79–80, no. 39, pl. 39). In 1607, Cardinal Scipione Borghese purchased the entire collection from Lelio Ceoli for ‘7,000 scudi’ (de Lachenal 1982, pp. 52–55). It was depicted a few years later in Villa Pinciana in an engraving by Philippe Thomassin with the inscription in aedibus Card. Burghesij (Gallottini 1995, pp. 79–80, no. 39, pl. 39). In her meticulous study of the Borghese Collection published in 1982, De Lachenal identified in the Thomassin print one of the three colossal sculptures that Paul V gave to his nephew Giovambattista Borghese in 1608 and are still displayed today in the loggia of Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio (pp. 55–58, fig. 21).

The two seventeenth-century prints show the sculpture from the same perspective and in a similar state of preservation. The figure’s head is also encircled by a crown in both prints. They differ, however, in their interpretation of the attribute held in the figure’s right hand. In Boscoli’s print, it is, according to Van Gelder, a spindle; in Thomassin’s it is instead a bunch of grain (Van Gelder 1985, p. 171, no. 84).

In 1828, the statue was mentioned in Room VII, where it is still found today, in one of the two lists attached to the Quarta Nota detailing the works selected to be restored and displayed in the Palazzina Borghese after the collection was stripped by Napoleon. The restoration of the iconographic attributes was carried out by Giuseppe Boschi, as we know from a payment of fourteen scudi, dated 21 January, ‘in saldo di Metalli fatti ad una Statua nella Camera Egizia del Casino Nobile in Villa Pinciana’ (‘in settlement of metal elements made for a statue in the Egyptian Room of the Casino Nobile of Villa Pinciana’; Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, B. 8098, p. 5, no. 42: Moreno, Sforzini 1987, p. 359). These elements, all in bronze, were the situlaheld in the left hand, the sistrum in the right hand and the lotus flower on the head. In 1832, Nibby reported the statue in Room V (now Room VII), describing it as ‘una bella statua d’Iside di grandezza un poco maggiore della naturale e di marmo pentelico’ (‘a beautiful statue of Isis just over life size and in Pentelic marble’). He also noted that the bronze elements do not appear in Egyptian iconography and were introduced when the cult of the goddess was imported into the Greco-Roman world (pp. 118–119). In 1893, Venturi identified the sculpture as a priestess, based on the metal attributes, and dated it to the first century (p. 43).

The female figure is standing with her left leg slightly bent and moved forward, and her right leg straight and supporting her weight. The right arm is slightly extended and bent at the elbow, and the right hand holds the sistrum (restored). The left arm hangs down along the body and the left hand holds the metal situla. The woman is wearing a long chiton with short sleeves held together by five buttons on the upper arm. The chiton extends to the ground, revealing only the figure’s toes. She wears a himation over the tunic, a kind of mantle that is wrapped twice around the body and pulled diagonally across the chest to the right shoulder. On the right side of the body, the himation falls in wide vertical folds, creating two folds, one that stops at the knee and another that falls to the left ankle. Her hair is arranged in long wavy locks, gathered in the back and parted above her forehead. According to Moreno, the face is heavily restored, specifically the incision of the pupils, the cheeks and the four wavy locks falling over the figure’s shoulders, although the original component used to attach them is preserved.

The treatment of the drapery, which falls in dense, dynamic folds, recalls that of archaic statues from the late fifth century BCE. The Borghese sculpture is a reworking of those statues and datable to the early imperial period, the first century BCE. This iconographic type is frequently found in depictions of the priestesses of Isis, examples including a small bronze from the edge of the Roman Empire, in the Netherlands, and a funerary relief preserved in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, in which the deceased, Babullia Varilla, priestess of Isis, is wearing a very similar garment and holds the same attributes (Zadoks-Josephus Jitta 1969, p. 60; Ruesch 1908, p. 187, no. 704).

In conclusion, it seems likely that the restoration work carried out in 1828 adhered closely to an iconographic model that was widespread in antiquity.


Giulia Ciccarello


  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, pp. 118-119, n. 2.
  • J-B. Clarac, Musée de sculpture antique et moderne, Paris 1851, vol. V, p. 987, n. 2585.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 22.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 923, n. 7.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), p. 26, n. 3.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 43.
  • P. Arndt, W. Amelung, Photographische Einzelaufnahmen Antiker Sculpturen. Serien zur Vorbereitung eines Corpus Statuarum Serien zur Vorbereitung eines Corpus Statuarum, München 1895, p. 27, n. 396.
  • A. Ruesch, Guida del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, Napoli 1908, p. 187, n. 704.
  • G. Giusti, The Borghese Gallery and the Villa Umberto I in Rome, Città di Castello 1919, p. 34.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, 1935, p. 16.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione), Roma 1954, p. 20.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 11, n. 81.
  • A. N. Zadoks-Josephus Jitta, W. J. T. Peters, Roman Bronze Statuettes from the Netherlands II. Statuettes Found South of the Limes, Groningen 1969, p. 60.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 19.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1981, p. 100, fig. p. 85.
  • L. De Lachenal, La collezione di sculture antiche della famiglia Borghese e il palazzo in Campo Marzio, in “Xenia”, 4, 1982, pp. 49-117, in part. pp. 52-55.
  • J. G. Van Gelder, Jan de Bisschop and his Icones & Paradigmata, Aja 1985, p. 171, n. 84.
  • P. Moreno, C. Sforzini, I ministri del principe Camillo: cronaca della collezione Borghese di antichità dal 1807 al 1832, in “Scienze dell’Antichità”, 1, 1987, p. 359.
  • A. Gallottini, Philippe Thomassin. Antiquarum Statuarum Urbis Romae, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, 1995, p. 63, tav. 27.1; p. 79, n. 39, tav. 39.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 172, n. 2.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, p. 237, n. 225.
  • J. Eingartner, Isis und ihre Dienerinnen in der Kunst der Römischen Kaiserzeit, Leiden 1991, p. 180
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008489, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.