Pirro Ligorio

Pirro Ligorio
approximately 1513-1583
Life of Hippolytus/Virbius
ca. 1568-1569
Pen and brown ink, with brown and gray wash, over black chalk, on paper.
12 3/4 x 8 3/4 inches (324 x 222 mm; folio)
Gift of J.P. Morgan, Jr.

Inscribed by the artist, as part of a letter to Ippolito d'Este in pen and brown ink, on folio 18 verso, "Di Ferrara il di [blank] Novembre del MDLXIX and Pyrrho Ligorio Romano meisopogniero." Inscribed by a later hand, on the title page, "Vita di Virbio / detto altrimente / Hippolito figlio di Theseo / Descritta e dissegnata / con immitatione dell'Antico / in sedici historie / Da Pirro Ligorio Antiquario famoso / Di sua propria mano / per servitio del Card. d'Este Il vecchio / Che voleva farne fare una tapezzeria d'Arazzi. S'hebbe dallo studio delle cose vecchie che haveva raccolto in Roma Francesco Villamena."
Watermark: page 8. Double tailed mermaid in a circle, surmounted by six-pointed star, centered on chain line.
Watermark: page 11. Double tailed mermaid in a circle, surmounted by six-pointed star, centered on chain line.
Watermark: page 20. Shield with letter "F" on three mounts.
Watermark: image of Virgin and child inscribed in a double circle. Different watermark on title page consisting of nine-sided polygon. Undocumented by beta radiographs.

Francesco Villamena (1564-1624), Rome (according to the later title page); Commendatore Giuseppe Cavalieri (1834-1917), Ferrara; sale, T. de Marinis, Florence, 1908, lot 12; purchased in 1909 by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), New York (no mark; see Lugt 1509); J.P. Morgan, Jr. (1867-1943), New York.

Although Pirro Ligorio probably did not enjoy the benefits of a traditional humanist education while growing up in Naples, he became what may be considered the quintessential Renaissance man. He was broadly learned, with a keen and enduring interest especially in the Roman past, and he mastered a myriad of disciplines. He pursued a successful career as a painter, print and map designer, architect, engineer, and antiquarian and was the author of treatises on Roman antiquities and earthquakes, signing them, as in this instance, meisopogniero, “hater of the wicked.”1 Yet his renown never matched his achievements, probably because Giorgio Vasari chose not to include him in his famous collection of biographies, the Vite, which were to predetermine the art historical canon. What we know of Ligorio stems mostly from Giovanni Baglione’s biography published in 1642 and from archival documents.

By the age of twenty Ligorio had arrived in Rome, where he is documented in 1542 as a decorator of facades. In 1549 he entered the services of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509–1572), who encouraged his antiquarian interests and research. The 1550s saw the publication of his book Delle antichità di Roma ne quale si tratta de’ circi, theatri & anfitheatri (1553), dedicated to his patron Ippolito, as well as seven prints of antiquities after his designs (1552–58) and several maps, of which the Antiquae urbis imago (1561), a large topographical map of ancient Rome, was the crowning glory.

For Ippolito, he designed a lavish villa and magnificent terraced gardens at Tivoli complete with sculptures and spectacular fountains and cascades—a feat of engineering at the time.2 In November 1569, while employed as antiquarian at the Este court in Ferrara, Ligorio sent the cardinal the present manuscript, consisting of sixteen illustrations of the life of the Greek hero Hippolytus (namesake of the cardinal) and his Roman reincarnation, the deity Virbius, with an accompanying commentary in Italian.3 It is likely that the commission for this work dates from slightly earlier, since the artist apologizes at the beginning of the commentary for the delay in preparing the manuscript, citing “a weakness of his hand” and having had to search for appropriate sources.4 The story line is loosely based on the tragedy Hippolytus by Euripedes, but Ligorio ingeniously tailored the mythical life of Hippolytus to that of the cardinal. The scene Hippolytus Initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries (folio 9 recto) is, for instance, an oblique reference to the cardinal’s ordination as a priest. Furthermore, the physiognomy of the bearded, middle-aged Virbius in the Founding of Ariccia (folio 16 recto), bears a certain resemblance to the cardinal’s features, and the foundation of the town could be seen as a parallel to the cardinal’s building activities in Tivoli and Rome.5 The album is fronted by a later, possibly seventeenth-century, title page, which names Francesco Villamena as its owner and claims that the illustrations were made as designs for a set of tapestries destined for Tivoli, which seems entirely plausible even if no such tapestries are recorded.

Earlier studies for scenes in the manuscript, still lacking wash, are in Munich (for the scene of Phaedra’s suicide) and Stuttgart (for Hippolytus as a horse tamer).6 Seventeenth-century copies of the entire booklet exist in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris—presumably the copy seen by the French collector and connoisseur Pierre-Jean Mariette and referred to in his Abecedario—and in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena.7



  1. New York 1965–66, 66.
  2. Coffin 1960 presents a thorough analysis of the Villa d’Este, its gardens, and its decorations, and also includes the most thorough treatment of the Morgan manuscript to date, but see also Coffin 2004, 99–105.
  3. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (XV, 533–34) and the Servius commentary to Virgil’s Aeneid (VII, 761), Hippolytus is reincarnated as Virbius.
  4. Folio 1 recto, “per la debolezza de la mano.”
  5. Coffin 1960, 72–75.
  6. Graphische Sammlung, Munich, inv. 2203; see Munich 1983–84, no. 48. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, inv. c 63/1182, no. 382; see Thiem 1977, no. 382.
  7. Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris, ms. 8529, see Munich 1958, 54–55, and Mariette 1851–60, 3:201–2n1; Biblioteca Estense, Modena, ms. Campori γ.S.4.48. For references to both copies, see also Coffin 1960, 151–52.

Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 116.
Selected references: Coffin 1960, 69-77, 151-59; Shearman 1961, 519; New York 1965-66, no. 110; Byam Shaw 1976, 146; Volpi 1996, 72-73; Lefevre 1998; Coffin 2004, 99-105.
Stampfle, Felice, and Jacob Bean. Drawings from New York collections. I: The Italian Renaissance. New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1965, no. 110, repr. Birth of Hippolytus (folio 5).


Manuscript of 19 folios, comprising an introduction and the life of Hippolytus/Virbius in Italian, with sixteen illustrations in pen and brown ink, brown and gray wash, over black chalk, all from the hand of Pirro Ligorio.
The drawings may represent studies for the never executed tapestries for the Villa D'Este.

Associated names: 

Villamena, Francesco, approximately 1566-1624, former owner.
Cavalieri, Giuseppe, 1834-1917, former owner.
Morgan, J. Pierpont (John Pierpont), 1837-1913, former owner.
Morgan, J. P. (John Pierpont), 1867-1943, former owner.

Artist page: