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The mystical marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Francesco di Cristofano called Franciabigio

(Florence 1484 - 1525)

First documented in connection with the Borghese Collection in the 19th century, this painting has been ascribed by critics to the Florentine painter Francesco di Cristofano, known as Franciabigio. The artist was particularly influenced by Andrea del Sarto, with whom he worked closely together. In this case, though, he shows a certain stylistic independence, evident mainly in the simplification of the composition.

The work depicts the mystical marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, portrayed here while she receives the ring from the Christ Child, in the presence of the Virgin. Next to her are the breaking wheel and a palm branch, symbols of her martyrdom.

Object details

oil on panel
cm 79 x 62

Salvator Rosa, 95 x 68.5 x 6.7 cm


Borghese collection, 1833 (Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 21: Della Pergola 1959). Purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1903 Luigi Bartolucci (pest control)


The provenance of this painting is still unknown. The panel is only first documented in connection with the Borghese Collection in the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833, where it is listed as a ‘Madonna and Child, school of Raphael’.

While this attribution was accepted by Giovanni Piancastelli (1891), it did not persuade Giovanni Morelli (1897), who following a suggestion made by Bode (in Burckhardt 1893) proposed the name of Franciabigio. Yet Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle (1914) rejected this idea, maintaining that the work was by Giuliano Bugiardini, a hypothesis that had already been put forth by Adolfo Venturi (1893) and Bernard Berenson (1909) though which was not accepted by Giulio Cantalamessa (1912). In 1928 Roberto Longhi revived the attribution to Franciabigio; for his part, Berenson (1936) later revised his initial idea and expressed his agreement with Longhi.

On the occasion of the publication of the catalogue of paintings of the Galleria Borghese in 1959, Paola della Pergola confirmed the attribution to Franciabigio, while at the same time suggesting that many parts had probably been left unfinished. This scholar further noted similarities between this Mystical Marriage and the Madonna and Child in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. no. 195): the shared details of the two works included the green curtain in the background, the physiognomy of the Virgin and the harsh tones of the colouring. In the view of Fiorella Sricchia Santoro (1963), these details showed a clear connection with elements of the oeuvre of Andrea del Sarto, developed by Franciabigio with independence and restraint: in particular Sricchia Santoro pointed to the small pavilion behind the Virgin and the cape on Catherine’s arm, which completely fulfil their ornamental function. The less complex character of the work – which is perhaps due to its incomplete state, as Della Pergola proposed – was highlighted by Susan R. Mc Killop (1974), who suggested that the panel was executed hastily in 1519; having just begun this work, the artist turned his attention to the more important project of Triumph of Cicero for the Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano.

Apart from this fascinating hypothesis, which still must be demonstrated, what is certain is that the work in question reflects that harsh and sometimes more natural influence of Del Sarto, which was characteristic of Franciabigio’s production of the 1520s. This same style is evident in some of his other compositions, especially the Head of a Youth in the Royal Library of Turin (inv. no. 15777), which Forlani Tempesti rightly attributed to him (in Il primato del disegno 1980): this work is characterised by a conspicuously stressed line, which lends the face a certain heaviness.

Antonio Iommelli

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 299;
  • W. Bode, in J. Burckhardt, W. Bode, Der Cicerone, II, Leipzig 1893, p. 680;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 113;
  • G. Morelli, Della Pittura Italiana. Studi Storici Critici: Le Gallerie Borghese e Doria Pamphili in Roma, Milano 1897, p. 93;
  • G. Frizzoni, in G. Morelli, Della Pittura Italiana. Studi Storici Critici: Le Gallerie Borghese e Doria Pamphili in Roma, Milano 1897, p. 93;
  • B. Berenson, Florentine Painters, New York 1909, p. 125;
  • J. A. Crowe, G. B. Cavalcaselle, A History of Painting in North Italy, VI, London 1912, p. 120 (nota);
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, Arch. Gall. Borghese, 1911-1912, n. 177;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 195;
  • B. Berenson, Pitture Italiane del Rinascimento, Milano 1936, p. 181;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 26, n. 28;
  • F. Sricchia Santoro, Per il Franciabigio, in “Paragone Arte”, I, 1963, p. 8;
  • S. R. Mc Killop, Franciabigio, Berkley (Los Angeles) 1974, pp. 163-164, n. 30;
  • A. Forlani Tempesti, in Il primato del disegno. Firenze e la Toscana dei Medici nell’Europa del ’500, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Palazzo Strozzi, 1980), Firenze 1980, p. 121, n. 230;
  • 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. 63.