The painting depicts a Sibyl wearing a typical turban-like headdress. She is looking up and while making her prophesy, she notes one of her dark responses. Like the prophets, these mythical priestesses – according to an ancient vision – announced the coming of Christ to the pagans, becoming a source of inspiration for many painters over the centuries.
According to the critics, the work was painted by the Viterbo artist Giovan Francesco Romanelli, and purchased in the 19th century by the Borghese family, most likely due to Prince Camillo’s involvement in 1818-1819.
19th-century frame with cymatium moulding, fillets and beads (92.5 x 81 x 9.5 cm)
Rome, Camillo Borghese Collection, 1818-1819 (Costamagna 2003, p. 103; Tarissi De Jacobis, in Villa Borghese 2003, p. 107); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 7; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
The painting is mentioned for the first time in the context of the Borghese Collection in Mariano Vasi’s Itinerario of 1824. According to critics, it was brought into the family’s possessions by Camillo Borghese between 1818 and 1819 (Costamagna 2003, p. 103; Tarissi De Jacobis 2003, p. 107). In the 19th century it was listed as a work by Guido Cagnacci (see the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833, p. 7; A. Venturi 1893, p. 58), while Hermann Voss (1924, p. 550) ascribed it to Giovan Francesco Romanelli: in fact, after Corrado Ricci first expressed doubts about the attribution to Cagnacci (1913-1914, p. 109), Voss did not hesitate to ascribe Sibyl to the artist from Viterbo, an opinion that critics have unanimously accepted ever since. Both Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 181) and Paola della Pergola (1959, pp. 131-132, no. 183) concurred; the latter scholar also indicated the existence of a copy in a private collection in Rome.
As the mantle worn by the subject of the work suggests, this painting depicts one of the legendary sibyls, whom ancient texts describe as priestesses with prophetic powers. Inspired by Apollo, they were able to provide answers to queries, which were promptly recorded in a book, as can be seen in the present work. Among the best known of these figures were the Erythraean Sibyl, the Cumaean Sibyl, the Libyan Sibyl and the Delphic Sibyl, each of whom was distinguished by means of particular iconographic attributes; in this case, though, none of these is used to specifically identify the subject.
Critics have proposed that the canvas reveals several similarities with sibyls painted by Guido Reni and artists of the Bolognese school. In the view of Della Pergola, the present work is ‘particularly refined in its colouring and expression’ (1959, p. 132).