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St. Catherine of Alexandria

Follower of Luteri Giovanni called Dosso Dossi

(Tramuschio? 1487 ca - Ferrara 1542)

This square-format painting depicts St Catherine of Alexandria with a heavy halo on her head and identifiable thanks to her traditional attribute, a cogged wheel that would have been her instrument of martyrdom but was shattered by the power of her faith in God, and so she was martyred instead by decapitation.

Object details

Seconda metà del XVI secolo
oil on canvas
cm 70 x 70

Collection of Scipione Borghese, documented in the Inv. c. 1630, attributed to Giuseppino – Giuseppe Cesari, Cavalier d’Arpino (Corradini 1998); Manilli 1650, p. 97, attributed to Dossi; Inv. 1693, no. 250, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci; Inv. 1790, room IV, no. 21, attributed to Caravaggio; Inventario fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 21, attribuited to Caravaggio. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.

  • 1984, Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2009-2010, Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art; Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1945, Carlo Matteucci
  • 1995, Emmebici (diagnostics)
  • 2009, Cecilia Bernardini (painting and frame)
  • 2020, Erredicci (diagnostics)
  • 2020, Measure 3D di Danilo Salzano (laser scan 3D)
  • 2021, Ars Mensurae di Stefano Ridolfi (diagnostics)
  • 2021, IFAC-CNR (diagnostics)


This painting, in an unusual square format, depicts the martyr saint Catherine of Alexandria, wearing a heavy halo on her head and resting on a wheel while reading a book.

In Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, published in 1650, Jacopo Manilli reports that, in the apartment at Tramontana, ‘above the loggia door, the painting of an old blacksmith, with many figures and views of the countryside, is by Bassano the Elder. The other one of St Catherine Martyr is by the Dossi brothers.’ This report provides us with a secure chronological anchor for the painting’s presence in the Borghese collection. The work had probably entered the cardinal’s collection somewhat earlier, as observed by Kristina Hermann Fiore based on a note in the Borghese inventory drawn up between 1620 and 1630, which describes a ‘painting on canvas of St Catherine black and gold frame, 5 high 4 wide, copy of Gioseppino’. However, the rectangular format of the painting described in the document is a poor match for the present work, the canvas of which has not been cut on any of its sides. Based on iconographic similarity, the painting would seem to be the one described in the 1693 inventory as ‘Under the above-said, a painting on canvas measuring three palmi with a St Catherine who is holding a book in her hand, No. 250 with gilt frame by Leonardo da Vinci’. In two other inventories, the one datable to 1790 for the picture gallery in the Campo Marzio residence and the family’s artistic trust of 1833, the work is attributed to Caravaggio. This singular and anomalous attribution to Caravaggio is shared by other Ferrarese paintings, first and foremost the Apollo (oil on canvas, 191 x 116 cm, inv. 1).

These early inventory citations and references found in other old sources mark the start of the ambivalent, enigmatic critical fortune of this painting, for which the continued lack of secure documentation prevents a universally accepted attribution.

It seems useful to start with Paola della Pergola’s entry for the work in her peerless catalogue of the paintings of the Galleria Borghese, published in 1955. She begins by highlighting the lack of information about the provenance of the painting, the first citation of which Della Pergola tracked down in Manilli’s text and the attribution of which to Dosso had been revived relatively recently by Roberto Longhi, following the attribution to Caravaggio in the 1790 inventory. In 1893, Adolfo Venturi, adding a prudent ‘attributed to’ next to Caravaggio’s name, probably in part due to the physical vicinity at the time of this painting to the Boy with a Basket of Fruit (oil on canvas, 70 x 67 cm, inv. 136) reported by Cantalamessa in his handwritten annotations in the Galleria’s catalogue, described the work as an ‘enlarged copy of a head by Garofalo’, noting an interesting and correct relationship with Ferrarese painting that we can see in the head of the Virgin in the Sacra conversazione by Garofalo also in the Borghese museum (oil on wood, 62 x 82 cm, inv. 240). Paola della Pergola observes that the chromatic rigour and artistic individuality of this small painting are far greater than those of the one to which it had been compared.

In her short catalogue entry, she summarises all the attributions that had been proposed by scholars to date, starting with Adolfo Venturi, who reported in Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese (1893) that the painting, numbered 142, was in Room 3, associating it with Garofalo’s work. She then turned to Lionello Venturi, who revived the attribution to Caravaggio in Note sulla Galleria Borghese (1909) and, finally, Roberto Longhi, who wrote in Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. I, Galleria Borghese (1927) that the St Catherine seemed to be a mature work by Dosso Dossi.

Taking Longhi’s observation as their starting point, subsequent scholars analysed the painting as a work dating to the artist’s final years. In her monograph on the two artist brothers, Amalia Mezzetti described the small painting as characterised by a strong, metallic sculptural feel and crude accents of light and shadow, likening this handling of light to that in the figure of the standing goddess in the painting Venus Discovers Psyche’s Beauty (Rome, Galleria Borghese, oil on canvas, 112 x 141.5 cm, inv. 304). Felton Gibbons was of a different opinion: despite the distinctive handling of the hair and breasts, which points to the modus operandi of Parmigianino, and the pale, ethereal hues that place it in direct dialogue with the Costabili Polyptych (oil on panel, 960 x 577 cm, inv. 189–194), painted for the high altar of the church of Sant’Andrea in Ferrara and now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of the old Este capital, the outlines of the figure are unusually precise and the woman’s smile seems similar to a caricature by Leonardo, assimilable to the faces in the Allegory of Hercules in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (oil on canvas, 143 x 144 cm, inv. Palatina 148). These observations, together with the oily finish, suggest that the St Catherine is a post-Baroque copy of an original by Dosso Dossi.

The painting was more recently studied by Alessandro Ballarin, both in his entry on the painting in the catalogue for the 1993 exhibition Le siecle de Titien: l'âge d'or de la peinture a Venise and his monumental volume Dosso Dossi. La pittura a Ferrara negli anni del Ducato di Alfonso I, published two years later in 1995, in which the entry written by Vittoria Romani locates the St Catherine within the Ferrara artist’s production in about 1530.

In 1998, in connection with the exhibition of Dosso Dossi’s work curated by Peter Humphrey and Mauro Lucco, the debate on the St Catherine was reignited following Anna Coliva’s publication of the results of the radiographic investigation of the works by the artist in the Galleria Borghese. Combining archival information and radiographic data, the work seemed to be attributable to Cavalier d’Arpino, the painting technique of whom seemed closer to the one used for this small painting than that of Dossi. In Ricevuta dei quadri del Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino fatta dal Card. Scipione Borghese del Guardarobba di Palazzo il 1 Agosto anno 1607, published by Aldo de Rinaldis in 1936, numbers 1 and 6 are paintings of St Catherine in which Coliva saw a possible correspondence with the work attributed to the Ferrara master. Scientific analysis has certainly revealed a preparatory method unlike the one previously noted in Dossi’s works from before the 1530s, not only in terms of pigments, but also the extreme compactness of the paint application, especially the clearly defined lead white underpainting in the area of the face.

Lara Scanu

  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 100
  • L. Venturi, Note sulla Galleria Borghese, «L’arte», 12, 1909, pp. 31-50
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. I, Galleria Borghese, in «Vita Artistica», II, 1927, pp. 28-31
  • A. de Rinaldis, Documenti per la storia della R. Galleria Borghese in Roma: I. le opere d’arte sequestrate al Cavalier d’Arpino, «Archivi», 2, 1936, pp. 110-118
  • A. de Rinaldis, Documenti inediti per la storia della R. Galleria Borghese in Roma: III. un catalogo della Quadreria Borghese nel palazzo a Campo Marzio, redatto nel 1760, in «Archivi», 2, 4, 1937, pp. 218-232, stanza IV, n. 21
  • A. Mezzetti, Il Dosso e Battista ferraresi, Ferrara 1965, pp. 47, 110, n° 155, fig. 78b
  • F. Gibbons, Dosso and Battista Dossi Court Painters at Ferrara, Princeton 1968, pp. 136-137, 197-198, n°57
  • A. Ballarin in Le siecle de Titien: l’âge d’or de la peinture a Venise, catalogo della mostra (Parigi, Grand Palais 9 marzo - 14 giugno 1993) a cura di G. Fage, Parigi, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1993, pp. 454-478 (474)
  • V. Romani, scheda 455 in Alessandro Ballarin, Dosso Dossi. La pittura a Ferrara negli anni del Ducato di Alfonso I, Cittadella (PD) 1994-1995, I, 2, p. 349
  • A. Coliva, Le opere di Dosso Dossi nella Collezione Borghese: precisazioni documentarie, iconografiche, e tecniche, in Dosso Dossi. Pittore di corte a Ferrara nel Rinascimento, catalogo della mostra (Ferrara, Civiche Gallerie d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, 26 settembre – 14 dicembre 1998; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 14 gennaio – 28 marzo 1999; Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum 27 aprile – 11 luglio 1999) a cura di P. Humphrey e M. Lucco, Ferrara 1998, pp. 72-81 (73-74)
  • A. Rothe, Appendice. Note tecniche sulle opere non in catalogo, in Dosso Dossi. Pittore di corte a Ferrara nel Rinascimento, catalogo della mostra (Ferrara, Civiche Gallerie d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, 26 settembre – 14 dicembre 1998; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 14 gennaio – 28 marzo 1999; Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum 27 aprile – 11 luglio 1999) a cura di P. Humphrey e M. Lucco, Ferrara 1998, pp. 283-287 (287)
  • K. Hermann Fiore, scheda 13 in Il museo senza confini. Dipinti ferraresi del Rinascimento nelle raccolte romane, a cura di J. Bentini e S. Guarino, Milano 2002, pp. 148-149