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Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

lombard school

First mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in 1893, this panel depicts a lavishly dressed woman while she holds a tray with a severed head. The ambiguity of her identity, which critics have variously equated with Judith or Herodias, has never been resolved: together with the young Salome, these two women have been traditionally portrayed next to their gruesome trophies

Object details

oil on panel
cm 55 x 43

Salvator Rosa, 66 x 53.5 x 6 cm


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1893 (Venturi 1893, p. 92). Purchased by Italian state, 1902.


Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1965-66 Alvaro Esposti


It is still not clear exactly when this painting entered the Borghese Collection. In fact it does not appear in the 17th- and 18th-century Borghese inventories or in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario.

Our first information regarding the panel dates to 1893, when Adolfo Venturi cited it as work of the Florentine school. His attribution was, however, later rejected by Bernard Berenson (1936), who proposed the name of Giulio Campi. Roberto Longhi (1928) distanced himself from both these proposals, rather associating the painting with the Palma circle. His thesis was in turn rebuffed by Paola della Pergola (1955), who ascribed it to an unknown artist while moving the date of its execution back to the 17th century.

Like the question as to the identity of the painter, doubts still persist regarding the subject of the work. The severed head has led some critics to surmise that the woman must be Judith, the dauntless widow from Bethulia who chopped off the head of the general Holofernes with a scimitar (Della Pergola 1955); others, meanwhile, have identified her with Herodias, the corrupt lover of Herod Antipas who according to the Gospels asked her young daughter to have a silver tray with the head of John the Baptist brought to her.

The painting may be older than what critics have thought. It was probably executed in the 1610s by a Lombard painter equally influenced by the Veneto style, in particular Giorgione, and the contemporary production of Girolamo Romani, called Romanino. This thesis evidently finds support in the recent attribution of an identical Salome, held at the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona (inv. no. 5251-1B744), which in the past was believed to be by Callisto Piazza of Lodi. Now critics ascribe that work to Francesco Prata da Caravaggio (F. Rossi, in Museo di Castelvecchio 2010), a little-known artist active in the Bergamo area between 1513 and 1523; the present writer proposes that the work in question is by the same painter.

Regarding the subject, the idea of depicting the macabre trophy on a metal plate – or in cup, as in the version in Verona – suggests that this may be a classical representation of the beautiful, young Salome rather than of Herodias or Judith; the latter figure is indeed usually portrayed with a sword and accompanied by a servant.Antonio Iommel

  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 92;
  • B. Berenson, Florentine Painters, Firenze 1907, p. 187;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 189;
  • B. Berenson, Pitture Italiane del Rinascimento, Milano 1936, p. 108;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 143, n. 255;
  • 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. 43;
  • F. Rossi, in Museo di Castelvecchio. Catalogo generale dei dipinti e delle miniature delle collezioni civiche veronesi, a cura di P. Marini, G. Peretti, F. Rossi, I, Cinisello Balsamo 2010, p. 427, n. 329