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Canina Luigi

(Casale Monferrato 1795 - Rome 1856)

The Sphinx has large eyes and a straight nose, while her mouth hints at a smile. She wears the nemes, the fabric headcloth which falls along the sides of the head in two broad lappets as far as the chest: this was the symbol of the pharaoh’s divine nature as son of the sun god Ra. On her forehead we see the Uraeus, the coiled snake which was responsible for protecting the pharaoh. She is depicted in a sitting position, her front paws stretched forward and her rear paws folded under her belly; her tail is wrapped around her right rear paw.

The sculpture was first documented in 1832 by Nibby, when it occupied the Egyptian Room. It was probably executed as the pendant of a similar work from the imperial era with which it is displayed. The design of the sculpture in question is by Luigi Canina.

Object details

before 1832
55 x 105 x 33.5 cm

First documented by Nibby, 1832, in Villa Pinciana; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 52, no. 165; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996-1998 L. Persichelli


The sculpture presents all the characteristic elements of the mythological figure – the feline body and human head – which was frequently represented in Egyptian art. This Sphinx is a modern exemplar displayed (in Room 7) together with another one from the imperial age (inv. no. CCVII), whose pendant it is. It reproduces the dual nature of Egyptian versions of the creature, which were placed at the entrances of funerary structures. Representations were commonly found in 18th-century Rome, such as those by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in Villa Albani (1760) and the Caffè degli Inglesi (c. 1765-67).

Apart from the discrepancy in size, the work in question differs from its pendant in several ways. Its finishing is smoother than that of its counterpart, with rounded corners and profiles rendering the transition between the various parts more gradual. In addition, here the nemes, the pharaoh’s head cloth, lacks the horizontal bands. Finally, the extremities of the paws of this Sphinx are rounded, such that the contours of her claws are not carved; by contrast, they are clearly visible in the ancient sculpture. These differences suggest that the sculptor of the modern work did not wish it to be confused with the prototype.

The work in question was first documented in 1832 by Nibby, who saw it in the Egyptian Room, together with the other Sphinx. In the view of this scholar, both sculptures were modern (p. 120). For his part, Venturi proposed that the sculpture was an imitation of the ancient Sphinx, perhaps executed on the basis of a drawing by Luigi Canina (1893, p. 44). His theory was later accepted by both De Rinaldis (1948, p. 30) and Della Pergola (1951, p. 20). Although this hypothesis is not supported by any documentation, it was also deemed probable by Faldi, who maintained that its execution was made necessary by the desire to rearrange the room following the sale to Napoleon of most of the works that it had contained (1954, p. 44). Faldi further argued that Canina was chosen to make the drawing for the sculpture because of his great familiarity with Egyptian art, which can be seen in several details, such as the nemes and the Uraeus. The architect from Piedmont had already given proof of his expertise in the project for the interior propyla in Villa Borghese in 1827.

Sonja Felici

  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 120.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno MDCCCXXXVIII. Parte seconda moderna, Roma 1841, p. 923.
  • Beschreibung der Stadt Rom, a cura di E.Z. Platner, III, 3, Stuttgart-Tübingen 1842, p. 255.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), I, p. 27.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 44.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1935, p. 15.
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1948, p. 30.
  • P. Della Pergola, La galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1951, p. 20.
  • I. Werner Oechslin, Canina, Luigi, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 18, 1975, pp. 96-101.
  • I. Faldi, Galleria Borghese. Le sculture dal sec. XVI al XIX, Roma 1954, pp.44-45, cat. 43.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 175, fig. 7.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008616, Castiglioni F., 1980; aggiornamento Felici S. 2020.