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The Calvary

Cesari Giuseppe called Cavalier d'Arpino

(Arpino 1568 - Rome 1640)

Rocca Giacomo

(active in Rome c. 1575.-1605)

The painting, which became part of the Borghese collection when Cesari’s possessions were seized in 1607, has generally been traced back to the Arpino painter with the collaboration of another artist, identified with Jacopo Rocchetti, alias Giacomo Rocca (who worked in Rome between 1592 and about 1605).

In the dark of night, the figure of the crucified Christ, by the sure hand of the master, like the characters in the middle ground and background, stands out against the group of bystanders. Instead, the figures in the foreground, the three Marys helping the fainting Virgin and, on the left, Saint John, can be traced back to Rocca’s hand. The work can be dated to the last decade of the 16th century.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 67 x 52

19th-century, with four corner palmettes, 84.5 x 69.5 x 8 cm


Rome, Giuseppe Cesari called Cavalier d’Arpino, ante 1607, inv. no. 35; Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1607; Inv. 1693, room XI, no. 26; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 27, no. 37; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1993 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 1995 Torre dei Passeri, Casa di Dante in Abruzzo
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1952 Augusto Cecconi Principi (pulitura, lievi ritocchi)
  • 2000 ENEA (indagini diagnostiche)


Christ on the cross is depicted in the centre of this painting, toward the back of a landscape at dusk. His head leans to the right, and his sides are wrapped in a white loincloth. The group of the three Marys are visible in the foreground as they aid the fainting Virgin on the left, while a blond St John in contemplation is seen from behind on the right, wearing a yellow robe and a light blue mantle. A small group of three figures occupy the middle ground on the left, while in the background mounted soldiers move away. As Kristina Herrmann Fiore (1995, p. 302) suggested, this type of tragic crucifixion with the head bent, which Michelangelo invented and which was taken up many times by his followers, would continue to mark this genre of representations throughout the 16th century and would influence the iconographic development of 17-century crucifixions. In the painting in question, which dates to the late 16th century, the crucified Christ appears isolated and separated from what surrounds him, in anticipation of works by Reni, Rubens, van Dyck and others.

In all likelihood this work formed part of those confiscated in 1607 by Paul V from Cavaliere d’Arpino, who was accused of illegal possession of arquebuses. The description given at entry no. 35 in the inventory of seized items corresponds to this painting: ‘A crucified Christ with the Marys’. The attribution to Cesari is documented for the first time in a payment made in 1612 to Annibale Duranti for making the ‘frame for the Crucifixion by Giuseppino’ (Della Pergola 1959, p. 217). This ascription is confirmed in the 1693 Borghese inventory, in which the canvas is listed together with a detailed description: ‘a painting roughly three spans high on canvas […] with Christ on the cross, the Virgin who has fainted and other figures […] by Cav. Gioseppe d’Arpino’. Nonetheless, the 1833 fideicommissum inventory lists the work as by an unknown artist.

Adolfo Venturi’s proposal to attribute the Cavalry to Cesare Nebbia (1893, p. 111) was rejected by Roberto Longhi (1924, p. 194), who confirmed the attribution to the school of Cavalier d’Arpino. Paola Della Pergola (1959, p. 65) agreed, cataloguing the canvas as close to the style of Cesari.

The question of attribution, however, is more complex, as Herwarth Röttgen (1974, pp. 27-28) noted. The German art historian observed signs of two different artists in the work: the depiction of the group of the three Marys in the foreground – more rigid and colder – is distant from Cesari’s style and is rather to be associated with the current of late 16th-century Roman painting which took its lead from Daniele da Volterra. The representation of the two Marys at the centre in fact derives from the Tuscan artist’s Deposition in the church of Trinità dei Monti, which also provided the model for the cold chromatic scheme. Röttgen believed that the two Marys in question were executed by Giacomo Rocca, a student of Daniele da Volterra and friend and collaborator of Cesari; his death during the pontificate of Clement VIII was reported by Baglione. In Röttgen’s view, the painting was left unfinished at the time of Rocca’s death and was completed by Cesari, who executed the central portion with the figure of Christ on the cross, the group of three men on the left and the entire background. In support of his thesis, the German scholar also noted two drawings in the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi (Santarelli nos. 2172 and 7728), both of which were executed for the Contarelli chapel and used again by Cesari for the group of three men in the painting in question.

Herrmann Fiore (1995, pp. 302-303) was of a different opinion: although she confirmed the parts painted by Cavaliere d’Arpino, she suggested that a less skilled collaborator of his, influenced by Daniele da Volterra, was responsible for the group of the three Marys. Considering that the composition of a painting usually begins with the centre and then moves from the top to the bottom, that group would have been added only after the rest of the work had been completed; according to this hypothesis, the painting was begun by Cesari.

Recently, Marco Simone Bolzoni (2016, p. 131) has taken up Röttgen’s idea, attributing the foreground to Jacopo Rocchetti, alias Giacomo Rocca, who inherited a portion of Daniele da Volterra’s goods and had been in close contact with the younger Cesari since the 1580s, collaborating together with him on more than one project, as Baglione reminds us. According to Bolzoni, the canvas was finished by Cesari in the early 1590s.

The work could in fact be dated to 1592-94; the latter date was proposed by Röttgen (2002, p. 261), as this was the period in which Cesari was working on the studies for the Contarelli chapel.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 452; 
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 111; 
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 194; 
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 65, n. 94, p. 217, n. 59;  
  • P. Della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (III), “Arte Antica e Moderna”, n. 30, 1965, pp. 202-217, in part. p. 215; 
  • H. Röttgen, in Il Cavalier D’Arpino catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Venezia, 1973), a cura di H. Röttgen, Roma 1973, pp. 151-152, n. 85;
  • H. Röttgen, Il Caravaggio. Ricerche e interpretazioni, Roma 1974, pp. 27-28;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Roma di Sisto V. Le arti e la cultura, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Venezia 1993), a cura di M.L. Madonna, Roma 1993, pp. 332-333, n. 4;
  • Roma di Sisto V. Arte, architettura e città fra Rinascimento e Barocco, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Venezia, 1993), a cura di M.L. Madonna, Roma 1993, p. 62, n. 9bis;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Michelangelo e Dante, catalogo della mostra (Torre dei Passeri, Casa di Dante in Abruzzo, 1995), Milano 1995, pp. 302-303;
  • H. Röttgen, Il Cavalier Giuseppe Cesari D’Arpino: un grande pittore nello splendore della fama e nell’incostanza della fortuna, Roma 2002, p. 261, n. 38;
  • 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. 61;
  • M.S. Bolzoni, Cavalier d’Arpino: omaggio a Michelangelo, in Dopo il 1564. L’eredità di Michelangelo a Roma nel tardo Cinquecento (atti della conferenza annuale della Renaissance Society of America, Berlino, 26-28 marzo 2015), a cura di M.S. Bolzoni, F. Rinaldi, P. Tosini, Roma 2016, pp. 120-141, in part. pp. 130-132.