This panel can perhaps be recognised as the one mentioned in the inventory confiscated from the Cavalier d’Arpino in 1607. The work is a derivation of the famous Flagellazione [Flagellation of Christ] by Sebastiano del Piombo, painted in oils on the wall of the Borgherini chapel in San Pietro in Montorio (1515-1524). Many critics believe it to be the work of Marcello Venusti, a painter with a style similar to that of Michelangelo, and who probably had direct contact with Sebastiano, having arrived in Rome several years before the latter’s death in 1547.
Salvator Rosa, 76 x 58.7 x 7 cm
Rome, Giuseppe Cesari, called Cavalier d’Arpino, ante 1607, no. 42 (?); Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1607 (?); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 10, no. 26; purchased by the Italian State, 1902.
This painting is derived from Sebastiano del Piombo’s Flagellation of Christ in the Borgherini Chapel in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. This famous oil wall painting was commissioned by the banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini and executed between 1516 and 1524. Critics have devoted many a study to Michelangelo’s role in the genesis of the Flagellation, to which we find a number of references both in documents of the time and in a series of drawings connected to this work. Two of these are kept at the British Museum in London (invv. 1895, 0915.813; 1895, 0915.500) and ascribed to Buonarroti, while a third, found in the Royal Collection at Windsor (inv. RL 0418), has been recognised by Giulio Clovio as a copy of one of the master’s lost paintings. The latter is the one that most resembles the Borgherini Flagellation, except for the nakedness of the figures, who in the final work are clothed, and is thought to have been Sebastiano’s main model, supplied by Michelangelo himself (Gnann 2010, pp. 176-179, no. 49).
The treatment of this subject is outside of the context of its narrative, rendering it an iconic object of contemplation, and has a number of famous antecedents, but no one had ever given it such monumental proportions or placed it on an altar destined to public worship (C. Barbieri, “Visionaria e monumentale. Sebastiano, Michelangelo, e la cappella Borgherini in San Pietro in Montorio,” in Artibus et historiae, LXXIV, 2016, p. 79), an aspect that contributed to the work’s immediate and extremely broad renown. It became established as an iconographic source and a term of comparison for subsequent interpretations of the same theme, including Caravaggio’s Flagellation now exhibited at the Museo di Capodimonte (M. Gregori in G. Borsano, S. Cassani, eds., Caravaggio e il suo tempo, exhibition catalogue, Naples: Museo di Capodimonte, 1985, no. 93).
Corroborating the extraordinary success of this work are not only the copy that Sebastiano himself made for the Chiesa dell’Osservanza del Paradiso in Viterbo (now preserved in the city’s Civic Museum), but also the many reproductions, whether exact replicas or variations on the theme, which was at the time a popular subject for easel paintings destined to hang in private homes.
It is in this context that we must observe the Borghese painting, recently exhibited at the Albertina Museum in Vienna (2010-11) in an interesting comparison with the Windsor drawing (Gnann, cit.).
The ascription of this work to Marcello Venusti, advanced for the first time by Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 98), was adopted by many other later scholars (Bernardini 1908, p. 42; D’Achiardi 1908, pp. 167-168; De Rinaldis 1939, p. 25, Dussler 1942, p. 121; Capelli 2003, pp. 241-248, who also refers of Claudio Stinati’s orally expressed endorsement; Gnann, cit., no. 50). Conversely, Paola della Pergola’s theory, which places the painting closer to the manner of Taddeo Zuccari (Della Pergola 1959, pp. 136-137, no. 188), wasn’t equally fortunate.
In the context of an ascription to Venusti, this work may derive directly from the original (as theorised by Gnann, cit., p. 177), or from the drawing known thanks to the Windsor copy, which in 1547 came into the possession of Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, who entertained a very close-knit relationship with Venusti, and allowed him, as Vasari tells us, to draw inspiration from the drawings by Michelangelo in his possession. In fact, De’ Cavalieri himself might have asked the painter to produce a copy of this subject. Among the known versions that over time have been referred to Venusti (some of which now expunged from his catalogue), the Borghese copy is certainly one of the best from a qualitative point of view, and in it we may observe some of the traits typical of this artist’s later production, especially the rendering of the light based on a careful study of the contrast of light and shadow, which give the entire scene a dramatic quality. Assuming these considerations are valid, this work could be placed in the 1560s or 1570s (Capelli, cit., pp. 242-243).
As for its collecting history, the painting is thought to have been part of the goods confiscated by Paul V from Cavalier d’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari) in 1607, after which the paintings passed into the hands of Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Della Pergola (cit.) recognised it in the inventory of the confiscated works, listed as “An imperfect naked Christ amidst the thieves against a column with no frame.” However, this identification has raised some doubts, as it fails to cite the work’s famous precedent, too well-known not to be mentioned in connection with this painting (Capelli, cit., p. 242), all the more so since the compiler names the Church of San Pietro in Montorio in other parts of the inventory.
A further reference, again with no mention of the original work, has been identified in a painting described by Montelatici (1700, p. 216) in the villa’s so-called “camera del Moro” and attributed to Cesari: “The Saviour tied to the column and beaten by the Soldiers, judged to be by Cavalier Gioseppe d’Arpino.”
The painting is described more precisely in the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833: “The Flagellation against the Column, by Sebastiano del Piombo, with a drawing by Michelangelo, 1 span and 9 ounces in width; 2 spans and 7 ounces in height; on panel,” a description in which both size and support are correctly reported. Unlike the previously mentioned quotes, these figures clearly set this painting apart from the other copy of the Borgherini Flagellation present in the Borghese Collection (inv. 410). Painted on canvas and much larger in size, it too is described in the Inventario Fidecommissario.
From a stylistic point of view, Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2000, pp. 64, 197, no. 21) has observed a marked qualitative difference between the central figure of the Christ and that of his four tormentors, defining their rendering as rather scholastic. Conversely, the architectural elements of the columns are extremely refined, and great care is devoted to the veins in the marble and the details of the capitals. Thus, the scholar postulates that the work is the result of a collaboration, though she does not identify any of its authors.
As in the original painting, the light in the Borghese version also falls directly upon the half-naked body of the Christ, making it the focus of the work and exalting its anatomic rendering, while the face remains in shadow, a device that enhances the dramatic force of the scene.
Pier Ludovico Puddu