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Saints Cecilia and Valerian

Orsi Lelio

(Novellara 1508 - 1587)

This panel bears the signature ‘L.E.O.’ at the base of the organ. It depicts Saints Cecilia and Valerian as they receive the visit of an angel in the silence of their home. According to the passio, after her wedding the Roman virgin told her husband she was a Christian, going on to convert both Valerian  and his brother Tiburtius to the religion. As soon as Valerian embraced the new faith, an angel appeared before the couple, bearing two beautiful crowns of flowers, symbol of their imminent martyrdom.

The work is documented as forming part of the Borghese Collection from 1650. Critics have attributed it to the painter Lelio Orsi of Novellara, although several errors in perspective as well the occasional inconsistencies in the execution – above all in the rendering of the angel – suggest that it may rather be a product of his workshop.

Object details

Ottavo decennio del XVI secolo
oil on panel
cm 75 x 59

In climabox 89.2 x 73.8 x 6.7 cm


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650; Della Pergola 1955); Inv. 1693, room II, no. 21; Inv. 1700, no. 40; Inv. 1790, room VII, no. 37; Invs. 1725, 1765, pp. 120, 146; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 34; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


Alla base delle canne dell'organo, in lettere capitali: 'L.E.O.'

  • 1950 Reggio Emilia, Galleria Fontanesi
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1917 Francesco Cocchetti;
  • 1937 Carlo Matteucci;
  • 1995 Laboratorio Restauro Soprintendenza;
  • 2004 Maria Francesca Tizzani;
  • 2008 Paola Minoja.


The provenance of this work is still unknown. It is first documented as forming part of the Borghese Collection in 1650, when it was noted by Iacomo Manilli among the family’s belongings in the Casino di Porta Pinciana: ‘The classical-modern work of St Cecilia with St Valerian and the angel above, uncertain artist, retouched by Domenichino’ (Manilli 1650). While past inventories and scholars ascribed it to either Correggio (Inv. 1693; Rossini 1725; Pungileone 1891) or Orazio Gentileschi (Inv. 1700; Inv. 1790), Roberto Longhi (1928) proposed the name of Lelio Orsi, which later critics generally accepted (Salvini 1950; della Pergola 1955; Freedberg 1971; Hoffmann 1975; Romani 1984; Hermann Fiore 2006). The exceptions were Kunze (1932) and Aldo de Rinaldis (1939), who curiously interpreted the letters visible at the base of the organ (‘L.E.O.’) as a reference to Ottavio Leoni.

As Longhi (1928) noted – and his theory was confirmed by Vittoria Romani (1984) – the work betrays a certain attention paid to the oeuvre of Correggio filtered through the examples of Parmigianino and Bedoli, who were deeply influenced by the religious culture of the 16th century. Regarding the period of its execution, critics have proposed a variety of dates, ranging from the years of the artist’s stay in Rome (Longhi 1928; della Pergola 1955) to the last phases of his career (Salvini 1950; Freedberg 1971; Romani 1984). According to Roberto Salvini (1950), this small work on copper is to be situated in the 1580s and represents one of the painter’s later efforts; in the view of this scholar, it is characterised by a charming decadence, evident in both the bust of Cecilia – whose features recall those of Orsi’s Saint Margaret in Cremona (Museo Civico, inv. no. 160) – and the sweetened gestures of Valerian, whose air resembles that of Charity and Justice in the Pietà of the Este family (Modena, Galleria Estense, inv. no. 296).

Restored for the first time by Domenichino in the 17th century (Manilli 1650), over the centuries the work lost its original brilliance, giving it a certain static, cold quality which is uncharacteristic of the artist. In spite of certain doubts raised by critics (see Clerici Bagozzi, Frisoni 1987), the panel can unreservedly be ascribed to Orsi, even though the layout of the scene and several errors in perspective justify the suspicion that his workshop had a large hand in its execution.

Antonio Iommelli

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 97;
  • P. Rossini, II Mercurio Errante, Roma 1725, p. 37;
  • L. Pungileone, Memorie Istoriche di Antonio Allegri detto il Corregio, I, Parma 1817, p. 39;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 57;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, pp. 109-110;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, pp. 13-17, n. 194;
  • J. Kunze, Palma Vecchio, in Thieme-Becker Kunstler-Lexicon, XXVI, Leipzig 1932, p. 59;
  • O. Kurz, Guido Reni, in “Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorische Sammlungen in Wien”, XI, 1937, p. 189;
  • A. De Rinaldis, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1939, p. 34;
  • F. Arcangeli, Mostra di Lelio Orsi a Reggio Emilia, in “Paragone”, I, 1950, pp. 48-52;
  • R. Salvini, in Mostra di Lelio Orsi: catalogo, catalogo della mostra (Reggio Emilia, Galleria Fontanesi, 1950), a cura di R. Salvini e A. M. Chiodi, Reggio Emilia, 1950, p. 50;
  • R. Salvini, Su Lelio Orsi e la Mostra di Reggio Emilia, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, XXXVI, 1951, pp. 82-83;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1951, pp. 21-22;
  • M. Gregori, Una Madonna di Lelio Orsi, in “Paragone”, XLIII, 1953, p. 56;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 58, n. 98;
  • L. Ferrara, Galleria Borghese, Roma 1958, p. 121;
  • G. Briganti, La maniera italiana, Roma 1961, p. 52;
  • P. della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (I), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXVI, 1964, p. 223;
  • S. Freedberg, Painting in Italy, 1500 to 1600, Baltimore 1971, p. 400;
  • J. R. Hoffman, Lelio Orsi da Novellara - A Stylistic chronology, tesi di dottorato, University of Wisconsin 1975, pp. 91, 105, 187 n. 35;
  • V. Romani, Lelio Orsi, Modena 1984, p. 94 e nota 71;
  • M. R. Bentini, Lelio Orsi alla corte Gonzaga di Novellara: una proposta per il “Cristo tra le croci”, in “Il Carrobbio”, XII, 1986, pp. 33-48, p. 34;
  • N. Clerici Bagozzi, F. Frisoni, in Lelio Orsi: (1511 - 1587), dipinti e disegni, catalogo della mostra (Reggio Emilia, Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli, 1987-1988), a cura di E. Monducci, M. Pirondini, Cinisello Balsamo 1987, p. 255, n. 9;
  • A. Coliva, a cura di, La Galleria Borghese, Roma 1994, p. 138;
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 245;
  • 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. 59.