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The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena

Vanni Francesco

(Siena c. 1563 - 1610)

The work was recorded for the first time in 1642 in the inventory of the inheritance of Ortensia Santacroce, wife of Francesco Borghese. Attributed in 1833 to Francesco Vanni, this name was accepted by critics for the undeniably Baroque ideas, which are particularly evident in the figure of the Child and the use of vivid colours.

The painting depicts the mystical wedding of Catherine of Siena. Kneeling and crowned with thorns, she receives the ring from her divine Spouse. Witnessing the scene along with the Virgin are Francis of Assisi and John the Evangelist, the latter depicted while holding a cup with a snake, his typical iconographic attribute. According to tradition, in fact, the saint – forced to drink infected wine – miraculously transformed the poison in the cup into a slimy snake.


Object details

late 16th century
oil on canvas
89 x 72 cm

Salvator Rosa, 109 x 89 x 8 cm


(?) Rome, Ortensia Santacroce Collection, 1642 (see Inv. 1642, no. 1 published by Della Pergola 1959, p. 56, no. 82); (?), Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650, p. 88); Rome, Borghese Collection, 1693 (Inv. 1693, room VIII, no. 9); Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 37; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


  • 2005-2006 Siena, Palazzo Squarcialupi.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1955 Alvaro Esposti (piccole riprese pittoriche);
  • 1958 Alvaro Esposti (rimozione delle vecchie vernici, pulitura, riprese pittoriche).


In all likelihood, this painting formed part of the legacy of Ortensia Santacroce, wife of Francesco Borghese, as seems to be suggested by an entry in the inventory entitled Inventario delle Robbe dell' Sig.ra Hortensia S.ta Croce Borghese, compiled in 1642: ‘A painting of St Catherine, the Virgin, St Francis and St John the Evangelist (Della Pergola 1959, p. 56, n. 82). This provenance, indicated by Paola della Pergola, has been accepted by most critics (Hermann Fiore 2005, with a bibliography updated to the time of publication), An exception is Francesca Profili (2003, p. 70), who proposed that the canvas might form part of the group of works belonging to Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrato, who gave them to Scipione Borghese in 1608 as remittance for the payment of the pension for the bishopric of Cremona.

While we do not know the exact date of its entry into the Borghese Collection, Paola della Pergola indicated that the work was seen by Iacomo Manilli at the Casino di Porta Pinciana in 1650. On this occasion, Manilli (1650, p. 88) described it as ‘a small painting of the Marriage of St Catherine, believed to be by Il Fattore’. Yet the phrase ‘small painting’ does not seem to correspond to the work in question. On the other hand, the canvas certainly appears in the 1693 inventory, as confirmed by both the measurements – ‘a canvas painting of 4 spans’ – and the inventory number – ‘no. 88’ – which is still visible in the lower right corner of the canvas.

The work was first ascribed to the Sienese painter Francesco Vanni by the compiler of the Inventario Fidecommissario (1833, p. 37), an attribution confirmed by both Giovanni Piancastelli (1891, p. 273) and Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 67). The latter scholar pointed to the Baroque characteristics of the painting, especially in the bright reds used for the face and small legs of the Child. Later, however, Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 182) suggested the name of Ventura Salimbeni, citing the ‘more muted range of colours’. Paola della Pergola, meanwhile, again proposed the attribution to Vanni, though with reservations: in the catalogue of the Galleria Borghese (1959, p. 56, no. 82), she referred to ‘a master very close to Vanni, if not […] Vanni himself’. Critics accepted this opinion, including Kristina Hermann Fiore (2005, pp. 386-387), who dated the painting to 1605-10.

The work depicts the mystical marriage of Catherine of Siena. Wearing a crown of thorns on her head, she is kneeling as she receives the ring from her divine bridegroom. The scene is witnessed by the Virgin, Francis of Assisi and John the Evangelist. The last-named figure is portrayed while showing a chalice with a serpent, one of his typical iconographic attributes: according to tradition, when the saint was obliged to drink poisoned wine, he miraculously transformed the liquid into a slithering snake.

Two other representations of the same subject by the painter are held in a private collection in Siena and at the Konstmuseum in Göteberg (Bagnoli 2006, pp. 58-63).

  Antonio Iommelli

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 88;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 273;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 67;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 182;
  • C. Brandi, Francesco Vanni, in “Art in America”, XIX, 1931, p. 81, nota 15;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 56, n. 82;
  • P. della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (III), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXX, 1965, p. 202;
  • K. Rozman, Painter Franc Kavčič/caucig and his drawings of old masterpieces, in “Zbornik za umetnostno zgodovino”, XI-XII, 1974-1976, pp. 64-65;
  • E. Bénezit, Dictionaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs, Paris 1976, p. 393;
  • F. Profili, Francesco Vanni e il cardinale Sfondrato, in Decorazione e collezionismo a Roma nel Seicento. Vicende di artisti, committenti e mecenati, a cura di F. Cappelletti, Roma 2003, p. 70;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, in Siena e Roma. Raffaello, Caravaggio e i protagonisti di un legame antico, catalogo della mostra (Siena, Palazzo Squarcialupi, 2005), a cura di B. Santi, C. Strinati, Siena 2005, pp. 386-387, n. 5.14.
  • A. Bagnoli, in Raccolta d’arte senese, I, Opere dal XV al XVII secolo, Siena 2006, pp. 58-63;
  • C. Garofalo, Francesco Vanni, in Nel segno di Barocci. Allievi e seguaci tra Marche, Umbria e Siena, a cura di A.M. Ambrosinini Massari, M. Cellini, Milano 2005, pp. 346-369;
  • 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. 26;
  • L. Bonelli, Francesco Vanni e la maniera di Barocci, in Federico Barocci 1535-1612. L’incanto del colore. Una lezione per due secoli, catalogo della mostra (Siena, Santa Maria della Scala, 2009-2010), a cura di A. Giannotti, C. Pizzorusso, Cinisello Balsamo (Milano) 2009, pp. 104-111;
  • M. Ciampolini, Pittori Senesi del Seicento, III, Marcantonio Saracini - Stefano Volpi, Siena 2012, ad vocem;
  • Francesco Vanni. Art in Late Renaissance Siena, a cura di J. Marciari, S. Boorsch, New Haven-London 2013;
  • M. Francucci, Puntualizzazioni su Vanni, padre e figlio, in "Valori tattili", X-XI, 2017-2018, pp. 114-121.