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Saint John the Baptist

Cesari Giuseppe called Cavalier d'Arpino

(Arpino 1568 - Rome 1640)

This painting, along with Battaglia di Tullio Ostilio contro i Veienti [Battle of Tullius Hostilius against the Inhabitants of Veii and Fidena], Cattura di Cristo [The Taking of Christ], Calvario [Calvary] and Venere incoronata da Amore [Venus Crowned by Cupid], were probably among those works confiscated in 1607 from the studio of Cavalier d’Arpino, at the orders of Paul V. It is a small painting with a religious theme, where the saint and lamb drinking from the spring in the foreground are set harmoniously in a luminous landscape filled with light hues, an important example of Cesari’s landscape painting at the beginning of the 17th century.

Object details

1603-1606 circa
oil on slate
cm 33 x 26

Salvator Rosa, 43.8 x 36.7 x 5,5 cm


Rome, Giuseppe Cesari called Cavalier d’Arpino, ante 1607, inv. no. 48 (?); Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1607 (?); Inv., 1615-30, no. 91 (?); Inv., 1693, room XI, no. 138; Inv., 1790, room II, no. 53; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 39, n. 24; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 2000 Bergamo, Accademia Carrara
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1992 Istituto Centrale del Restauro (disinfestazione)


The first certain mention of this oil on slate appears in the Borghese inventory of 1693, where it is precisely described – though with an erroneous attribution – as a ‘small painting of roughly a span and a half on slate with St John the Baptist taking water from a rock and a lamb. No. 170. Gilded frame by Martiniani’. The inventory number cited here is still visible in the lower right hand corner of the painting; together with the indication of its measurements and support medium, this detail allows us to be certain of its identification.

Critics believe that this work corresponds to the one that appears in the inventory of Cavaliere d’Arpino’s goods, which were confiscated at the behest of Paul V as punishment for illegal possession of weapons; indeed, this document contains mention of a ‘small landscape with John the Baptist’. If this is in fact the case, the painting came into the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese together with 104 other works, thanks to the donation of his uncle the pope. Many of these paintings are still held by the Galleria Borghese, including five which are either by Cesari or from his circle. In addition to the possibility that the work in question is the one indicated in the 1607 inventory, some scholars have proposed that the same painting appears in the guide by Jacomo Manilli (1650, p. 115), which mentions a ‘John the Baptist in the desert, by Cavaliere [Paolo] Guidotti’ (Della Pergola 1959, p. 62). The same attribution to Guidotti is found in the inventory of Cardinal Borghese (once dated to between 1615 and 1630 but which scholars now believe to have been composed in roughly 1633), on which Manilli probably drew. Here we learn the dimensions of the work in question: ‘a small painting of John the Baptist, 1½ high and 1¼ wide, gilded frame. Guidotti’. This correspondence allows us to link this Saint John the Baptist directly to Cardinal Scipione and therefore to confirm its entry into the Borghese Collection by means of the above-mentioned confiscation. Nonetheless, without further details, its provenance is still uncertain.

The only inventory with the correct attribution to Cesari is that of the 1833 fideicommissum. Regarding the opinions of art historians, we should note that Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 198) ascribes the work to Cesari on purely stylistic grounds, allowing him to by-pass the documentary uncertainties caused by the mistaken attribution of the older inventories, which was the fruit of having confused the work in question with Simone Cantarini’s Saint John the Baptist (inv. no. 357; see Della Pergola 1959, p. 62). Although Longhi’s reasoning was accepted by both Adolfo Venturi (1932, p. 939) and Paola Della Pergola (op. cit.), the work was not included in the 1973 exhibition on Cavaliere d’Arpino, while its attribution to Cesari was given as only hypothetical in the 2000 exhibition Caravaggio. La luce nella pittura lombarda in Bergamo (Macioce 2000, p. 194). On the latter occasion, critics wrote that the somewhat rigid rendering of the saint’s garment as well as a certain brevity in the pictorial execution recall the means employed by Bernardino Cesari to ‘summarise’ his brother’s artistic inventions; some scholars have indeed proposed that the work was by Bernardino himself. Only later did Herwarth Röttgen (2002, p. 369) include the painting in the catalogue of the older brother, noting that the youthful face of the protagonist closely resembles those of other female figures which were certainly by Cavaliere d’Arpino, such as that of Europe in the painting in the Borghese Collection (inv. no. 378) and that of Potiphar’s wife in the panel from the Ludovisi collection, now privately owned.

Considered a fine example of Cesari’s landscape painting, the work can undoubtedly be dated to the period of his mythological and erotic production, namely between 1603 and 1606, just before the confiscation of his works ordered by Paul V.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 113;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 370;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 131;
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1911-1912, p. 229;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I: La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 198;
  • A. Bertini Calosso, Le Collezioni artistiche e archeologiche di Roma, in Guida d’Italia del T.C.I. – Italia Centrale, 1931, p. 280;
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’Arte Italiana, IX, Roma 1932, 5, p. 939;
  • A. De Rinaldis, D’Arpino e Caravaggio, in “Bollettino d’Arte” (XXIX), 1936, p. 580;
  • 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, in “Archivi” (III, IV), 1937, p. 222;
  • A. De Rinaldis La Galleria Borghese in Roma (Itinerari dei Musei e Monumenti d’Italia), Roma 1939 (3a ed.), p. 32;
  • A. Quadrini, Il Cavalier d’Arpino, Isola del Liri 1940, p. 52;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 62, n. 89;
  • P. Della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (I), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, 1964, n. 26, p. 217;
  • K. Rozman, Painter Franc Kavčič/Caucig and his drawings of old masterpieces, in “Zbornik za umetnostno zgodovino”, XI-XII, Ljubliana 1974-1976, pp. 51-52;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Caravaggio e la quadreria del Cavalier d’Arpino, in Caravaggio. La luce nella pittura lombarda, catalogo della mostra (Bergamo, Accademia Carrara, 2000), a cura di C. Strinati, Milano 2000, p. 66;
  • S. Macioce, in Caravaggio: la luce nella pittura lombarda, catalogo della mostra (Bergamo, Accademia Carrara, 2000), a cura di C. Strinati, Milano 2000, p. 194, n. 18;
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 121;
  • H. Röttgen, Il Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari D’Arpino: un grande pittore nello splendore della fama e nell’incostanza della fortuna, Roma 2002, p. 369, n. 122;
  • 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. 77.