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The Return of the Prodigal Son

Benci Giovanni Battista

(active in Rome first half of the 17th century)

The painting is confirmed in the Borghese collection from 1650, reported by Iacomo Manilli as the work of Giovan Battista Benci, a little-known artist. Its presence in the cardinal's collection bears witness to the cultivated prelate’s interest in contemporary painting and emerging artists.

The work represents the famous parable of the 'Prodigal Son' narrated in the Bible by the evangelist Luke: a man has two children and despite the care and attention they receive, the youngest decides to leave home, claiming his share of the inheritance. On returning from his misadventures, the boy is greeted kindly by his father who prepares a fine banquet for him. The canvas shows the moment when the young man, kneeling, is greeted by the old man who has ordered the servant on the right to dress his newly returned son in new perfumed clothes.

Object details

1625 circa
oil on canvas
cm 110 x 148

Salvator Rosa, 131 x 168.5 x 6.4 cm.


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650); Inv. 1790, room V, no. 20; Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 36; purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni;
  • 2011 Roma, Palazzo Venezia.


The provenance of this painting is still unknown. It is recorded as part of the Borghese Collection since 1650, when Iacomo Manilli described it hanging in the Gladiator Room and indicated both subject and name with great precision. In 1790 it was referred to as a work by Valentin de Boulogne, the attribution with which the canvas was identified until the catalogue compiled by Adolfo Venturi (1893). It was duly returned to Benci’s production by Lionello Venturi, who in 1909 reconnected the painting to Manilli’s description.

In 1928, Roberto Longhi confirmed Lionello’s assessment and indicated the presence of a version of this painting in the Roman church of San Pietro in Vincoli, which was however lacking the figure of the old woman on the left. The theory was also embraced by Paola della Pergola, who in 1959 published the painting with the correct reference to the artist belonging to the second generation of Caravaggisti, as well as by later critics (Guarini 1992; Herrmann Fiore 2006; Pomponi 2011).

We still don’t know very much about Benci. According to Vitaliano Tiberia (2005), the painter originally from Aquila arrived in Rome sometime in the first five years of the 17th century and in 1606 married a Roman woman, Olimpia Passerotti, quite probably the daughter of the Bolognese painter Passarotto Passerotti (see Pomponi 2011). This information was made public by Massimo Pomponi, who in seeking information on the painter in Roman parochial registers found traces of the presence of a Giovanni Battista Benci, from Siena, and of another homonymous Roman artist who lived in the house of the painter Pier Francesco Alberti from Borgo San Sepolcro, son of the better-known Durante.

The existence of a 17th century painter by the name of Giovanni Battista Benci had already been indicated by Antonino Bertolotti (1881), who mentioned him – describing him as a Roman – in relation to charges brought forth against the Milanese engraver Enrico Moro in 1625. This document has been used by critics to postulate the execution of the Borghese canvas in the same year as the complaint, commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese himself (see Pomponi 2011).

This work illustrates the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son, a young man welcomed back by his aged father after abandoning the family home and squandering his inheritance. The scene depicted here captures the moment in which the naïve son is kneeling to receive the forgiveness of his father, who has ordered a servant to dress him with fresh clothes. The composition, constructed with great skill by the painter, is a fusion of Bolognese classicism and the Caravaggesque style typical of the 1620s, which is evident here in the dark background from which the figures in the foreground emerge, in the use of light from an external source, and in the very Caravaggesque rendering of the father’s hand, ready to welcome the long-lost son (see. Pomponi 2011). The composition is rendered even more dynamic and full of energy by the contrasting colours of the garments and of the figures’ skin, as well as the arrangement of the subjects along diagonal lines.    

Antonio Iommelli

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 83; 
  • M. Vasi, Itinerario, Roma 1794, p. 392; 
  • A. Bertolotti, Artisti lombardi a Roma, II, Roma 1881, p. 246;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 410; 
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 195; 
  • L. Venturi, Note sulla Galleria Borghese, in “L’Arte”, XII, 1909, pp. 45, 296; 
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 217; 
  • P. della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 39; 
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 72, n. 106; 
  • S. Guarino, 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, p. 37; 
  • V. Tiberia, La compagnia di San Giuseppe di Terrasanta da Gregorio XV a Innocenzo XII, Congedo, Galatina, 2005, ad vocem;
  • 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. 133; 
  • M. Pomponi, in Roma al tempo di Caravaggio (1600-1630). Opere, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Venezia, 2011-2012), a cura di R. Vodret, Milano 2011, pp. 328-329.