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Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Manner of Barocci Federico

(Urbino c. 1535 - 1612)

This painting is a half-length portrait of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with the martyr’s typical attributes: the palm branch, the breaking wheel and the crown, which indicates her rank of princess.

The work has formed part of the Borghese Collection since the 17th century. The traditional attribution to Federico Barocci has been called into question on a number of occasions. While recognising traits of the style of the master from Urbino, today scholars believe the work was by a member of his circle, specifically Barocci’s student Alessandro Vitali.


Object details

Inventory
111
Location
Date
fine XVI - inizio XVII secolo
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 69,5 x 58
Frame

Salvator Rosa, 89 x 77.5 x 6.5 cm

Provenance

Collection of Scipione Borghese (?); Inv. c.1633, no. 82 (?); Inv. 1693, room IV, no. 6; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 9. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.


Commentary

The canvas is a half-length portrait of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, depicted in the act of worship, with her right hand on her chest and her gaze directed upward. The saint is recognisable by the crown she wears on her head, a sign of her princely rank, and the symbols of her martyrdom – the palm branch and the breaking wheel – which are just visible in the lower part of the painting. The wedding band on her left ring finger alludes to her marriage to the Christ Child, another widespread motif in pictorial representations of the saint.

The first mention of the work in the Borghese documentation dates to the 17th century. It perhaps corresponds to the entry of a ‘painting of Saint Catherine, 2 ⅔ high, 2 ⅓ wide, with a frame of carved pear wood. By Baroccio’, which appears in the inventory of Cardinal Scipione (originally dated to 1615-1630 by Corradini 1998, p. 449, but today generally believed to be from the early 1630s. See, among others, S. Pierguidi, ‘“In materia totale di pitture si rivolsero al singolar Museo Borghesiano”’, Journal of the History of Collections, XXVI, 2014, pp. 161-170); with the exception of slight discrepancy in the dimensions, this description matches the work in question. More certain references to the painting appear later in Jacopo Manilli’s guidebook to Villa Pinciana (1650, p. 88) and in the 1693 family inventory, both of which ascribed the work to Barocci. In the following century, the only possible mention of the work is found in the general description of ‘A Saint’ by Barocci in the inventory of 1790. Subsequently, the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario listed the work as a ‘Saint Catherine of the Wheel, by Parmigianino’ (Della Pergola 1959, p. 70, n. 101); yet we cannot be certain that this entry refers to our work, as the Borghese Collection contains another painting with the same subject which critics today regard as a copy after the artist from Parma.

While this Saint Catherine shows many similarities to the style of Barocci, not all scholars are persuaded that it is an autograph work. Venturi (1893, p. 89) listed the canvas under the name of the master from Urbino, although he noted several weaknesses in its execution. For his part, Cantalamessa (1912, n. 111) ascribed it to Barocci’s student Alessandro Vitali. Later, Longhi (1928, p. 187) took up the attribution to Barocci, though his thesis was cast into doubt by subsequent critics, including Della Pergola (1959), who wrote – albeit cautiously – of the manner of Barocci, a view shared by Herrmann Fiore (2006, p. 41). Previously, Olsen (1955, pp. 178-179; 1962, pp. 208-209) had expressed agreement with Cantalamessa’s attribution to Alessandro Vitali.

The Borghese canvas shows a close connection to the full-length Saint Catherine held today in Palazzo Rosso in Genoa, which is considered a product of Barocci’s workshop. The work in question differs from the latter in certain details, such as the position of the saint’s right arm, which she holds closed against her chest rather than open in a gesture of devotion, and the crown, which here is placed on her head and not at her feet as in the Genoese version. In addition, a similar half-length portrait is held by the Louvre (in the storerooms of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Chambéry), which has also been attributed to Vitali. In the view of Olsen (1955; 1962), the two works are copies of the Saint Catherine mentioned by Bellori in his biography of Barocci (1672, p. 194). Bellori in fact wrote that ‘he painted two half-length portraits for Count Francesco Maria Mamiani, one of Saint Catherine and the other of Saint Sebastian, with the arrows in one hand and the other folded across his chest, and with his gaze directed toward the splendour of Heaven’. Olsen proposed that the portrait of Catherine mentioned here is the Beata Michelina, which Barocci painted for the church of San Francesco in Pesaro in 1606 (today in the Pinacoteca Vaticana); the Galleria Borghese holds a drawing that represents a copy of this work (inv. no. 581). 

Pier Ludovico Puddu




Bibliography
  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 88.
  • G.P. Bellori, Le vite de’ pittori scultori et architetti moderni, Roma 1672, p. 194.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese 1891, p. 86.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 89.
  • J.A. Rusconi, La Villa, il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Bergamo 1906, p. 85.
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, Arch. Gall. Borghese, 1911-1912, n. 111.
  • E. Calzini, Studi e Notizie su Federico Barocci (a cura della Brigata urbinate degli Amici dei Monumenti), Firenze 1913, pp. 170, 177, 180.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 187.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 70, n. 101.
  • H. Olsen, Federico Barocci. A Critical Study in Italian Cinquecento Painting, Stoccolma 1955, pp. 178-179.
  • H. Olsen, Federico Barocci, Copenaghen 1962, pp. 208-209.
  • S. Corradini, Un antico inventario della quadreria del Cardinal Borghese, in Bernini scultore. La nascita del barocco in Casa Borghese, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Galleria Borghese, 1998), a cura di A. Coliva, S. Schütze, A. Campitelli, Roma 1998, p. 451, n. 82.
  • 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. 41.