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The Return of the Prodigal Son

Barbieri Giovan Francesco called Guercino

(Cento 1591 - Bologna 1666)

The painting, from the Lancellotti collection, was purchased in 1818 by Camillo Borghese to enhance his family collection, partially lost during the French occupation. The subject – the return of the prodigal son – is from the New Testament (Luke 15: 11-32), which tells the story of an old man who forgives and welcomes the younger son, after he has squandered his share of the inheritance. In fact, the scene emphasises the theme of the domestic intimacy to which the fatherly gesture of the wise parent alludes. With one hand he grasps the shoulder of the boy, portrayed as he strips off the old clothes to put on the clean ones brought by a servant on the left. There is also a dog to welcome him, a symbol of loyalty and mercy.

Object details

1627/1628 circa
oil on canvas
cm 125 x 163
Cornice ottocentesca

Rome, Lancellotti Collection, 1770 (Hamilton 1773, pl. 37); Rome, Prince Camillo Borghese, 1818 (Piancastelli 1891, p. 201; Della Pergola 1959, p. 226, no. 100); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 13; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


  • 1968 Bologna, Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio;
  • 1989 San Pietroburgo, Hermitage;
  • 2003-2004 Milano, Palazzo Reale;
  • 2004 Roma, Stazione Termini (Ala Mazzoniana);
  • 2006 San Diego, Timken Museum of Art;
  • 2009 Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art;
  • 2010 Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum;
  • 2011-2012 Roma, Palazzo Barberini;
  • 2013 Rio de Janeiro, Museu Nacional de Belas Arte;
  • 2015 Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art;
  • 2019 Bard, Forte di Bard;
  • 2019-2020 Napoli, Palazzo Reale.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1946 Carlo Matteucci (pulitura del manto viola e vari restauri);
  • 1968 Gabinetto Restauro Bologna (leggera pulitura, verniciatura);
  • 1997 OPUS (restauro della cornice);
  • 2002-2003 Andrea Parri (restauro della cornice).


The painting became part of the Borghese Collection in 1818, as is shown by a payment receipt discovered by Giovanni Piancastelli in the papers of the Borghese Archive and published by Paola della Pergola in 1959 (p. 226, no. 100). This crucial document attests to the purchase of the work by Camillo Borghese, who through his mediator Ignazio Grossi obtained five works from Prince Orazio Lancellotti for a total of 3,000 scudi. The provenance of the painting from Lancellotti’s collection is further proved by both an engraving by Domenico Cunego, dating to 1770, which contains the phrase Romae ex Tabula in Aedibus Lancellotti (Hamilton 1773, pl. 37), and a drawing by Francesco Caucig made between 1781 and 1787 (Vienna, Kupferstichkabinett, inv. no. 976).

Taking this information into account as well as the fact that Guercino worked in Rome for Tiberio Lancellotti, in 1968 Sir Denis Mahon dated the execution of this canvas to 1627-28 (Mahon 1968, pp. 147, 151, no. 61), an opinion which all critics have accepted. According to this scholar, this date in fact corresponds to the scenes painted in 1627 on the walls of the cathedral of Piacenza, where one notes the same static character of composition that lends a certain sereneness and balance to the work in question: this effect is particularly apparent in the rendering of the figures and the use of colour.

Guercino chose the theme of this painting – the return of the Prodigal Son – many times during his career: as a young man, he painted two such works in 1618 and 1619 for Cardinals Ludovico Ludovisi and Giacomo Serra, respectively, while in his mature years he repeated the subject for Taddeo Barberini (1642), Don Gregorio Maffoni (1642), the Venetian Giovanni Nane (1651) and Archbishop Girolamo Boncompagni (1654). In the case of the last-named painting, the archbishop gave it to Prince Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna. One of the many versions of this theme by Guercino is a work mentioned in the Borghese Collection in 1693 (Inv. 1693, room III, no. 120; Inv. 1700, room III; Inv. 1790, room III, no. 5), which was sold in 1801 to a French intermediary, a certain Durand. Finally, another variation with only two figures – which was previously in the Hercolani Collection – was purchased by Marcantonio Borghese in 1870 to be placed in the castle in Nettuno.

  Antonio Iommelli



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  • G. Hamilton, Schola Italica Picturae sive Selectae quaedam tabulae aere incisae cura et impensis Gavini Hamilton pictoris, Romae, Giuseppe Perini inc, 1773, tav. 37;
  • G. Atti, Intorno alla Vita e alle Opere di Gian Francesco Barbieri detto il Guercino da Cento, Roma 1861, p. 131;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 201;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 56;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 180;
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 65;
  • P. Della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 41;
  • C. A. Petrucci, Catalogo generale delle Stampe tratte dai rami incisi posseduti dalla Calcografia Nazionale, Roma 1953, pp. 48, 300;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, pp. 50-51, n. 81;
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  • J. Hess, Kunstgeschichtliche Studien zu Renaissance und Barock, Rom 1967, p. 337;
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  • F. Vivian, Guercino seen from the Archivio Barberini, in “The Burlington Magazine”, CXIII (814), 1971, pp. 23-24;
  • L. Salerno, I dipinti del Guercino, Roma 1988, p. 210;
  • Il Guercino: Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591–1666, catalogo della mostra (Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico, 1991; Cento, Pinacoteca Civica, 1991; Cento, Santa Maria del Rosario, 1991; Frankfurt, Main, Schirn-Kunsthalle 1991-1992), a cura di D. Mahon, Bologna 1991, p. 112, n. 38;
  • G. Stone, Guercino, catalogo completo dei dipinti, Firenze 1991, p. 134;
  • A. Coliva, a cura di, La Galleria Borghese, Roma 1994, n. 122;
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 319;
  • S. Lucantoni, in Il Museo senza confini. Dipinti ferraresi del Rinascimento nelle raccolte romane, a cura di J. Bentini e S. Guarino, Milano 2002, pp. 222-223, n. 51;
  • S. Barchiesi, in Guercino: poesia e sentimento nella pittura del '600, catalogo della mostra (Milano, Palazzo Reale, 2003), a cura di D. Mahon, Milano 2003, pp. 210-211, n. 65;
  • Guercino: stylistic evolution in focus, catalogo della mostra (San Diego, Timken Museum of Art, 2006-2007), a cura di S. Prasad, San Diego, 2006, p. 47, tav. 2;
  • 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. 19;
  • L. Bartoni, in Galleria Borghese. The Splendid Collection of a Noble Family, catalogo della mostra (Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art, 2009; Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, 2010), a cura di C.M. Strinati, A. Mastroianni, F. Papi, Kyoto 2009, p. 164, n. 44;
  • M. Minozzi, in Guercino. Capolavori da Cento a Roma, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Barberini, 2011), a cura di R. Vodret, F. Gozzi, Roma 2011, p. 116, n. 22;
  • D. Mahon, Catalogo critico dei dipinti, Bologna 2013, p. 151, n. 21;
  • N. Turner, The Paintings of Guercino. A Revised and Expanded Catalogue raisonné, Roma 2017, p. 441, n. 154;
  • Il Guercino. Opere da quadrerie e collezioni del Seicento, catalogo della mostra (Bard, Forte di Bard, 2019), a cura di E. Rossoni, L. Berretti, Bard 2019;
  • L'arte della Giustizia. La giustizia nell'arte, catalogo della mostra (Napoli, Palazzo Reale, 2019), a cura di G.S. Ghia, Roma 2020.