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The Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist

Cantarini Simone called Pesarese

(Pesaro 1612 - Verona 1648)

Perhaps originally from Bologna, this painting was purchased by the Italian state in 1912. It was executed in approximately 1642 by Simone Cantarini. It depicts the Holy Family with the young John the Baptist, who tenderly kisses the hand of Jesus, portrayed here in his mother’s arms. Executed with a grace that recalls the style of Guido Reni, the composition is characterised by a skilful use of light, which exalts the contours of the four protagonists against the dark background, infusing them with an air of compassion. Of particular interest are the face of the elderly Joseph, which bears the marks of time, and the splendid profile of the Virgin, whose head is covered with a white cloth in the form of a turban.

Object details

1642 circa
Oil on canvas
96 x 73 cm

17th-century frame


(?) Bologna, Locatelli collection, 1658 (Ambrosini Massari 1997-1998); (?) Bologna, collection of Tanarini da San Domenico, 18th century (Mancigotti 1975); Rom, collection of Caterina Franchioro, 1912 (Della Pergola 1955); Rome, purchased by Italian state, 1912 (Franchioro purchase).

  • 1922 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
  • 1997-1998 Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale


Purchased in 1912 for 2,000 lire at the behest of Corrado Ricci, this canvas was first published by Giulio Cantalamessa (1913), who following Ricci drew attention to the fact that this work shows Cantarini’s creative independence from the style of Guido Reni. A copy is held at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, which critics deem qualitatively and stylistically inferior to the Borghese composition (see Della Pergola 1955; Ambrosini Massari 1997-1998).

In 1969, Felton L. Gibbons noted that the work in question reveals the culmination of certain ideas developed by Cantarini in several of his earlier drawings, preserved today in Princeton (University Art Museum, inv. nos. 1990.159-134; Den Broder 1991). These depict the Holy Family and The Rest on the Flight to Egypt, compositions which confer a subtle grace and idyllic tenderness upon Mary and the Christ Child, with the latter portrayed as he yields to his mother’s delicate embrace.

In the view of Mario Mancigotti (1975), the work in question betrays the clear influence of the Carracci. This scholar proposed that it came from Bologna, in particular from the collection of Tanarini da San Domenico. It was here that Marcello Oretti saw it in the 18th century (BOBCA, Ms B 128, c. 440), together with an engraving of the work, which attests to the success of the painting. Oretti described the canvas in these words: ‘the Blessed Virgin shown seated in profile as she holds the Christ Child on her lap, the young St John kisses the hand of Our Lord, and with St Joseph. The scene is still seen in prints from an engraving made by Simone himself; the painting is among the choicest and best preserved of his works’.

As Anna Maria Ambrosini Massari (1997-1998) suggested, the painting probably came from the Locatelli collection, where in 1658 a work with a similar subject was cited, which belonged to one of the relatives of the same Bernardino who took Cantarini under his wing: as Malvasia (1678) wrote, ‘he made him master of his own home’. This detail takes on a certain relevance if we consider that Bernardino was actively involved in the engravings market and owned prints of all the paintings of his collection (Malvasia 1678). In addition, according to Ambrosini Massari the Borghese painting was based on the Holy Family with Saint Martha (Banca Popolare dell'Adriatico, Pesaro), a work of the artist’s early career which was still permeated by traces of Mannerism. In the canvas in question, he adopts a similar subject, though now with allusions to Reni, as suggested by the composition’s calibrated rhythm. This scholar, finally, proposed connecting several other drawings by Simone with the Borghese canvas: a pen sketch of a Madonna with the Child on Her Lap and Young St John Kissing His Hand (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, inv. no. 495; Ambrosini Massari 1997); two other variations on the same theme (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, inv. no. 88; Cellini 1997); and two drawings at Palazzo Rosso in Genoa (inv. nos 1114, 1998).

Another version of the painting, from Chatsworth (Devonshire collection), was identified on the London antiques market (Christie’s, 28 November 1975, no. 17; Ambrosini Massari 1996-1997), while in 1938 Carlo Alberto Petrucci drew attention to a print from an engraving made by Cantarini himself and reproduced by Bartsch (1819).

Antonio Iommelli

  • C.C. Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice, Bologna 1678, a cura di G. P. Zanotti 1841-1844, II, p. 378.
  • A. Bartsch, Le Peintre Graveur, XIX, Würzburg 1819, pp. 15-16.
  • G. Cantalamessa, Nuovi acquisti della Galleria Borghese, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, I, 1913, pp. 113-115. 
  • G. Cantalamessa, Cronaca delle Belle Arti, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, VIII, 1914, p. 91. 
  • Mostra della pittura italiana del ‘600 o e del ‘700, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, 1922), a cura di N. Tarchiani, Roma 1922, pp. 47-48. 
  • R. Strinati, La Galleria Borghese di Roma. Gli ultimi acquisti. Giulio Cantalamessa, in “Emporium”, LX, 1924, pp. 601-612. 
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 226. 
  • A. Petrucci, Il Pesarese Acquafortista, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, XXXII, 1938, p. 54. 
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 56. 
  • P. della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 35. 
  • C.A. Petrucci, Catalogo generale delle Stampe tratte dai rami incisi posseduti dalla Calcografia Nazionale, Roma 1953, pp. 34, 143. 
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 18, n. 9. 
  • R. Longhi, Saggi e ricerche 1925-28. Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. La Galleria Borghese, Firenze 1967, pp. 350, 356. 
  • F. Gibbons, Notes on Princeton Drawings III. Simone Cantarini or Cecco Bravo?, in “Record of the Art Museum Princeton University”, XXVIII, 1969, p. 42. 
  • M. Mancigotti, Simone Cantarini il Pesarese, Pesaro 1975, pp. 129, fig. 68. 
  • P. Bellini, L’opera incisa di Simone Cantarini, Milano 1980, p. 141.
  • A. Mazza, in Nell’età di Correggio e dei Carracci. Pitture in Emilia dei secoli XVI e XVII, catalogo della mostra (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazione e Museo Civico di Bologna, 1986. Washington, National Gallery of Art, 1986-1987. New York, The Metropolitan Museum, 1997), Bologna 1986, p. 399.
  • D. Benati, in Scuola Emiliana. Pinacoteca di Brera, a cura di A. Della Valle, C. Pirovano, Milano 1991, p. 150.
  • F.A. Den Broder, Old Master drawing from the Collection of Joseph F. McCrindle, Princeton University 1991, p. 103, n. 41
  • A. Colombi Ferretti, Simone Cantarini, in La scuola di Guido Reni, a cura di E. Negro, M. Pirondini, Modena 1992, p. 118.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Invisibilia. Rivedere i capolavori. Vedere i progetti, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 1992), a cura di M. E. Tittoni, S. Guarino, Roma 1992, pp. 44-45.
  • A.M. Ambrosini Massari, in Simone Cantarini nelle Marche, catalogo della mostra (Pesaro, Palazzo Ducale, 1997), a cura di A. Emiliani, A.M. Ambrosini Massari, Venezia 1997, pp. 155-156, n. 12.
  • A.M. Ambrosini Massari, in Simone Cantarini detto il Pesarese (1612-1648), catalogo della mostra (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, 1997), a cura di A. Emiliani, Milano 1997, pp. 78-79.
  • M. Cellini, in Simone Cantarini nelle Marche, catalogo della mostra (Pesaro, Palazzo Ducale, 1997), a cura di A. Emiliani, A.M. Ambrosini Massari, Venezia 1997, pp. 231-232, n. 88.
  • C. Stefani, in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 389. 
  • 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.175.