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Salmacis and Hermaphrodite

Scarsella Ippolito called Scarsellino

(Ferrara c. 1550 - 1620)

This work depicts one of the most famous myths, painted by Scarsellino during his early period. It is traditionally considered a pendant to the Bath of Venus (inv. 219), even though the latter is on canvas. The subject of the painting is frequently identified as Diana and Endymion, but it can be more correctly interpreted as Salmacis and Hermaphrodite. This myth tells the story of the nymph Salmacis’s love for the young son of Hermes and Aphrodite, who she met near a spring. According to the story, the nymph embraced him with such passion that their bodies merged as one. The work contains all the stylistic features typical of the artist, who matured in the climate of the sophisticated Ferrara court but was also sensitive to the Venetian approach to colour of Titian, Veronese and Bassano. The two figures are set in a theatrical natural landscape where the turquoise-streaked sky is dotted with pinkish-orange patches, echoed in the two suspended putti and Salmacis’s clothing left on the shore.

Object details

1615 circa
oil on panel
cm 41,5 x 56

Borghese collection, documented in Inv. 1693, room VI, no. 321; Inv. 1790, room II, no. 59; Inventario fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 25, no. 20. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.

  • Venezia, 1959
  • Bologna, 1959
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1947 Carlo Matteucci
  • 1958 Alvaro Esposti
  • 2020 Measure 3D di Danilo Salzano (laser scan 3D)
  • 2020 Erredicci (diagnostics)
  • 2021 IFAC-CNR (diagnostics)
  • 2021 Ars Mensurae di Stefano Ridolfi (diagnostics)


This mythological scene, as interesting as it is rare and still listed in the Galleria Borghese catalogue of paintings in 1955 as Diana and Endymion (Della Pergola 1955), actually depicts the story of Salmacis and Hermaphrodite in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (4.285–38). In this episode, the beautiful nymph Salmacis was guardian of a fountain in the Anatolian region of Caria. When Hermaphrodite came to the fountain, the nymph fell immediately in love with him, embracing him and praying to all the gods to be able to stay with him for eternity.  Granted her request, the gods merged their bodies into one, but Hermaphrodite, seeing what had happened, cursed the fountain protected by the nymph, swearing that anyone who bathed in its waters would suffer the same fate.

This subject, although uncommon, had already been depicted by Annibale Carracci in a medallion on the ceiling of the Galleria in Palazzo Farnese, Rome, but Scarsellino decided to portray a different moment in the story rather than that of the union of the two bodies. The composition is dominated by the amorous thrust of Salmacis who, wanting to embrace her beloved, wades through the river to reach him and finally join herself to him, in keeping with the poetics of affections typical of Emilian painting and first theorised by Gabriele Paleotti (1572). Scarsellino was among the artists who applied this approach, especially in the first decades of the seventeenth century, notably strengthening the psychological and emotional aspects of the stories through the gazes and gestures that accompany the narration.

Besides the eagle at the far right of the composition, which has been read as a possible heraldic reference indicating it as a Borghese commission (Della Pergola 1955), there is another iconographic detail that helps clarify the chronology of this painting. At the top of the composition, we find two embracing putti, who we can identify as Eros and Anteros, symbolic of the encounter of reciprocal love, which is also found in the above-cited decorative programme of the Galleria Farnese (Herrmann Fiore 2002). Scarsellino’s painting would therefore be a variation on and development of the theme depicted by Annibale in the first years of the century.

The heavily Venetian atmosphere and palette, intense attention to nature and experimentation with classicising figures and their reflections on the water, reminiscent of that of Albani and Domenichino in the second decade of the seventeenth century, contribute to dating the work to about 1615, when painting in Ferrara was starting to embrace the new classical ideal through contact with the work of the Carracci, first made at the end of the sixteenth century during the decoration of Palazzo dei Diamanti.

Lara Scanu

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  • X. Barbier De Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Roma 1870, p. 351, n. 30
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 127
  • G. Gruyer, L’art Ferrarais a l’époque des Princes d’Este, Parigi 1897, p. 413
  • G. Morelli, Della Pittura Italiana. Studi Storici Critici: Le Gallerie Borghese e Doria Pamphili in Roma, Milano 1897, p. 219
  • G. Lafenestre, E. Richtenberger, Rome, les musées, les collections particulières, les palais, Parigi 1905, p. 52
  • E. G. Gardner, De painters of the School of Ferrara, London 1911, p. 252
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 197
  • B. Berenson, The Italian painters of the Renaissance, Londra 1932, p. 518
  • R. Longhi, Officina ferrarese, Roma 1934, p. 153
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’arte italiana, IX, 7, Milano 1934, p. 804, 812
  • B. Berenson, Pitture italiane del Rinascimento, Milano 1936, p. 445
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 77
  • P. Della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 48
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 67, n. 117
  • M.A. Novelli, Lo Scarsellino, Bologna 1955, pp. 15-16, 67, fig. 8
  • F. Arcangeli in Maestri della pittura del Seicento emiliano: catalogo critico, catalogo della mostra (Bologna, Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, 26 aprile – 5 luglio 1959) a cura di F. Arcangeli e M. Calvesi, Bologna 1959, pp. 241-242, n. 124
  • G. Mariacher, in La pittura del ‘600 a Venezia, catalogo della mostra (Venezia, Museo d’Arte Moderna Ca’ Pesaro, 27 giugno – 25 ottobre 1959), Venezia 1959, p. 6, n. 3
  • M.A. Novelli, Lo Scarsellino, Ferrara 1964, pp. 10-11, 39, n. 150, tav. III
  • B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools, I, London 1968, p. 391
  • E. P. Bowron, Scarsellino’d Nymphs ar the Bath, «Bulletin of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts», 59, 1970, p. 30
  • J. Bentini, Il fascino della pittura veneta: il caso dello Scarsellino, in La pittura in Emilia e in Romagna, vol II, Bologna 1993, pp. 256-258
  • A. Coliva, Galleria Borghese, Roma 1994, p. 140, fig. 74