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The Abduction of Europa

Cesari Giuseppe called Cavalier d'Arpino

(Arpino 1568 - Rome 1640)

The painting formed part of the collection of Scipione Borghese, who probably purchased it directly from the artist. The subject is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while the composition is built around the complementary colours of light blue and yellow; the result is one of Cesari’s most harmonious works. The painter focused on the moment of the abduction, when the young Europa was taken by Jupiter. Transformed into a bull, the god is shown here as he moves away from the shoreline.

Object details

1603 – 1606 circa
oil on panel
cm 57 x 45

19th-century frame with cymatium moulding, 76.5 x 64.5 x 9 cm


Collection of Scipione Borghese, ante 1633; Inv. c.1633, no. 76; Inv. 1693, room IX, no. 26; Inv., 1790, room IV, no. 18; Rome, collection of Pietro Camuccini, 1800-1817; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 20, no. 13; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1973 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 1996-1997 Lecce, Fondazione Memmo
  • 2002 Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi
  • 2005-2006 Firenze, Museo degli Argenti


This medium-sized panel belonged to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who may have purchased it directly from the artist (Della Pergola 1959, p. 61). It was first mentioned in the cardinal’s inventory (dated to 1615-1630 by Corradini 1998, p. 449, but today thought to be from the early 1630s: see, among others, S. Pierguidi, ‘“In materia totale di pitture si rivolsero al singolar Museo Borghesiano”’, in Journal of the History of Collections, XXVI, 2014, pp. 161-170); here it was described as ‘a painting on panel of Venus [sic] abducted by Jupiter in the form of a bull, in a walnut frame with a gilded frieze, 2 ¼  high, 1 ¾ wide, by Gioseppino’. Thereafter, it is mentioned in all the inventories and guidebooks of the Borghese Collection with the correct attribution to Cavalier d’Arpino (see Herrmann Fiore 2005, p. 148).

In the wake of the late 18th-century events which led to the dispersion of a great number of Roman collections and the loss of several masterpieces from the Borghese Collection, Cesari’s panel was sold to the Roman merchant Pietro Camuccini. The transfer was in fact recorded in Camuccini’s unpublished Stock book: ‘The Rape of Europe, original by C. d’Arpino, formerly in the Galleria Borghese, painted on panel, with a frame’. A note entered later in the register shows that the painting was bought back by Camillo Borghese in the 1810s, the period in which the prince attempted to fill the gaps in the family collection caused by the sales of the previous decades: as in this case, he sought to specifically purchase those works which had once been present in the Galleria (Puddu 2017/18, pp. 176-179, 289). The panel is in fact mentioned as again forming part of the collection in Manazzale’s Itinerario (1817, p. 242) and figured among the works listed in the 1833 inventory that were subject to the restrictions imposed by the fideicommissum.

The subject of the work in question is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and forms part of a series of mythological and erotic scenes often painted by Cavalier d’Arpino at the beginning of the 17th century (c.1603-06, see Röttgen 2002, p. 365). Such scenes, whether depicted in paintings or sculptures, were well represented in the collection of Scipione Borghese, who enjoyed drawing attention to the parallels between the arts. In addition, as critics have pointed out, this iconography lent itself to moralising interpretations on two levels: on the one hand, it could be read as an allusion to the abduction of the human soul on the part of Christ (Herrmann Fiore, 2005), while on the other it served as a warning to young girls not to expose themselves to the risk of isolated places (Tosini 1996, p. 212).

Regarding the composition of the work, here the artist in part distanced himself from the figurative tradition by placing Eros in the clouds on an eagle, an attribute of Jupiter. Eros in fact observes the scene from up close, while Jupiter has disguised himself as a bull to abduct Europa, whom he takes into the open sea. That the atypical presence of the eagle may allude to the Borghese coat of arms has led critics to propose that Cardinal Scipione directly commissioned the painting to the artist (Herrmann Fiore, 2005). Another element supporting this hypothesis is the similarity between, on the one hand, the figures on the shoreline and the pathos which they express and, on the other, those in the marble relief also entitled The Abduction of Europa, known today only by the drawing in the Topham Codex at Eton College. The relief, now lost, was inserted into the northern façade of Villa Borghese in about 1620 and was probably already in possession of the Cardinal in the first decade of the 17th century; the painting and the relief were undoubtedly conceived to complement each other. Yet in light of the difficulty previously encountered by Winckelmann in determining whether the latter should be classified as an ancient or modern work, it is impossible to establish which member of the pair influenced the other (see Herrmann Fiore, 2005).

With regard to the seascape in the painting by Cesari, characterised by grass, waves and plays of light, we note the influence of Paul Bril’s oeuvre, which certainly played a role in shaping Giuseppe’s production, as is evident in certain paintings by him (Röttgen, 2002).

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p.111;
  • A. Manazzale, Itinerario di Roma, Roma 1817, p. 242.
  • E. Z. Platner, Beschreibung der Stadt Rom, Stuttgart 1830-42, III.1, p. 288.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 363.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 184.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 215.
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’Arte Italiana, IX.5, Roma 1932, pp. 931-932.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La Galleria Borghese in Roma (Itinerari dei Musei e Monumenti d’Italia), Roma 1939, p. 33.
  • P. Della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 36.
  • A. Pigler, Barockthemen. Eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, Budapest 1956, p. 80.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 61-62, n. 88.
  • H. Röttgen, in Il Cavalier D’Arpino, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Museo di Palazzo Venezia, 1973), a cura di H. Röttgen, Roma 1973, p. 112, n. 34.
  • A. Coliva (a cura di), Galleria Borghese, Roma 1994, p. 167.
  • P. Tosini, in Immagini degli Dei. Mitologia e collezionismo tra Cinquecento e Seicento catalogo della mostra (Lecce, Fondazione Memmo, 1996-1997), a cura di C. Cieri Via, Milano 1996, p. 212, n. 46.
  • S. Corradini, Un antico inventario della quadreria del Cardinal Borghese, in Bernini scultore. La nascita del barocco in Casa Borghese, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Galleria Borghese, 1998), a cura di A. Coliva, S. Schütze, A. Campitelli, Roma 1998, p. 451, n. 76.
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 189.
  • E. Capretti, in Il mito di Europa: da fanciulla rapita a continente, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi, 2002-2003), progetto scientifico e cura generale C. Acidini Luchinat con la collaborazione di E. Capretti, Firenze 2002, p. 263, n. 60.
  • H. Röttgen, Il Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari D’Arpino: un grande pittore nello splendore della fama e nell’incostanza della fortuna, Roma 2002, p. 365, n. 117.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Mythologica et Erotica: arte e cultura dall’antichità al XVIII secolo, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Museo degli Argenti, 2005- 2006) a cura di O. Casazza e R. Gennaioli, Livorno 2005, pp. 148-149, n. 21.
  • 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. 126.
  • P.L. Puddu, Pietro Camuccini (1760-1833). Mercato e collezionismo di dipinti nella Roma napoleonica e della Restaurazione, tesi di dottorato, Sapienza Università di Roma, a.a. 2017/18, pp. 177, 289.