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Samson in Chains

Carracci Annibale

(Bologna 1560 - Rome 1609)

The work, painted by Annibale Carracci around 1594, is documented in the Borghese collection from the mid-17th century, referred to in ancient inventories regarding Venetian painting of the 16th century.

The subject is taken from the Old Testament (Book of Judges 15,11-13) and depicts Samson chained up in the cave of Etam by Judah’s men, and plotting his revenge. Lying at his feet is a donkey's jawbone that the hero, with God’s help, later uses to kill a thousand Philistines.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 180 x 130
Cornice ottocentesca con quattro palmette angolari.

(?) Rome, Ludovisi Collection, 1633 (Posner 1971, II, p. 34, no. 83); Inv. 1693, room III, no. 14; Inv. 1700; Inv. 1790, room III, no. 2; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


  • 1956 Bologna, Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio;
  • 2021 New Orleans, Museum of Art;
  • 2021-2022 Kansas City, Nelson Atkins Museum.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1913 Luigi Bartolucci, Augusto Cecconi Principi (pulitura);
  • 1936 Carlo Matteucci (pulitura, eliminazione ossidi di vernici, rimozione delle vernici sovrapposte);
  • 1947 Carlo Matteucci (pulitura e verniciatura);
  • 1954 Alvaro Esposti (pulitura, rimozione delle vecchie vernici, ripresa pittorica delle lacune, doppia verniciatura);
  • 1965 Renato Massi (restauro completo della cornice);
  • 2008 Laura Cibrario, Fabiola Jatta (restauro completo).


The precise year of this painting’s entry into the Borghese Collection is unknown. The first mention of the work comes from Iacomo Manilli in 1650, who believed it to be by Sebastiano del Piombo. Later – in 1678 – Malvasia rightly attributed it to Annibale Carracci, although the author of the 1693 inventory listed it as the work of Titian, a judgement supported by Giacomo Pinarolo in 1713.

In 1878, Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle confirmed – albeit with some reservations – the name of the Venetian master. Fifteen years later, in his Storia dell'arte italiana (1928, III, p. 301) Adolfo Venturi seconded this opinion, comparing the painting to the River Allegory in the Museo di Capodimonte, which, he believed, was executed by Titian ‘after he was struck by Michelangelo’s greatness in Rome and copied the Laocoön’ (Venturi 1927, p. 276). The first critic to back Malvasia’s attribution was Roberto Longhi (1928. p. 137), who placed the execution of Samson in Annibale Carracci’s Bolognese period, suggesting a date of 1590-95. In addition, the scholar wrote that the work was ‘one of those studies influenced by the Veneto school, and more precisely by Tintoretto, which I believe Annibale found useful for studying those great nudes which are used as border figures in frescoes, along the lines of those in Palazzo Sampieri’. Aldo De Rinaldis (1939, p. 27). was in agreement with Longhi.

Building on Longhi’s proposal, Donald Posner (1971, II, p. 34, n. 83) suggested that the painting was one of ‘the three works of the same dimensions with three nudes copied from the Academy by Agostino and Annibale Caracci’: this trio of paintings was mentioned as forming part of the Ludovisi collection in Rome in 1633 (see Garas 1967, p. 347).

The painting represents the tremendously strong Biblical hero of the Book of Judges (13-16). He is portrayed here in the darkness of the cave while he waits for the divine aid that will miraculously free him from his prison. According to the Old Testament episode, Sansom was tied with two cords in the cave of Etam and forcibly dragged to the town of Lehi, where upon being saved by God he killed a great number of Philistines with a jawbone of an ass which he had found on the road.

In this painting, Annibale focuses on the moment before the divine intervention and the massacre carried out by the Biblical hero. The painter emphasises the extraordinary intellectual power of the figure by depicting his formidable physique. Samson’s pose, which alludes to Michelangelo’s Slaves, inspired Guido Reni’s Sacred and Profane Love (Genoa, Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola, inv. GNPS 111), which, however, gives its capricious, rebellious protagonist a touch of light-heartedness and irrationality, unlike Annibale’s Samson.

Taking into consideration several similarities between this painting and Annibale’s St Roch Giving Alms at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, Sir Denis Mahon dated the work to c.1594 (1957, p. 282), an opinion accepted by all critics.

  Antonio Iommelli

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 107;
  • C.C. Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice, Bologna 1678, a cura di G. P. Zanotti 1844, p. 357;
  • G. Pinaroli, L’Antichità di Roma con le cose più memorabili tanto antiche che moderne, Roma 1713, II, p. 105;
  • J.A Crowe, G.B. Cavalcaselle, Tiziano. La sua vita e i suoi tempi, Firenze 1877-1878, II, p. 469;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 40;
  • A. Venturi, Studi dal vero attraverso le raccolte artistiche d’Europa, Milano 1927, p. 276;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, pp. 137, 177;
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’arte italiana. IX, 3, Milano 1928, p. 301;
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Pinacoteca del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, Napoli 1928, p. 331;
  • F. Sestini, Studio anatomico su un quadro di Tiziano Vecellio e rapporti con l’opera anatomica di Vesalio, La Spezia 1929, pp. 6, 17;
  • A. De Rinaldis, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1939, p. 27;
  • P. Della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 11;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, pp. 20-21, n. 15;
  • Mostra dei Carracci, catalogo della mostra, a cura di G.C. Cavalli, Bologna 1956, p. 204;
  • D. Mahon, Afterthought on the Carracci Exhibition, “Gazette des Beaux Arts”, VI, 49, 1957, p. 282;
  • P. Della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (I), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXVI, 1964, p. 225;
  • K. Garas, The Ludovisi Collection of Pictures in 1633, in "The Burlington Magazine", CIX, 1967, p. 347;
  • R. Longhi, Saggi e ricerche 1925-28. Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. La Galleria Borghese, Firenze 1967, pp. 318-32;
  • D. Posner, Annibale Carracci. A Study in the Reform of italian Painting around 1590, II, New York 1971, p. 34;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Guida alla Galleria Borghese, Roma 1997, p. 32;
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 83;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Art energy. L’energia nella storia dell’arte dall’antichità classica al XX secolo, a cura di C. Biasini Selvaggi, Milano 2004, p. 70;
  • 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. 14.