Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The painting of the Good Samaritan in Bracciano Castle

Stephen Martin

Fig. 1. The Good Samaritan, Bracciano Castle, Lazio, Italy, c. 1600–1610. Photographed by author with curator’s permission to publish in Hektoen International.

The Orsini of Bracciano were one of the richest and most powerful aristocratic families in early modern Italy.1 Much of their impressive collection remains in Bracciano Castle, Lazio,2 and includes an early painting of the Good Samaritan described by Saint Luke. It is unusual in style and dates from about 1570 to 1630, judging by the costumes.

The Samaritan applies oil and wine to the victim’s wound, the only insight we have into St. Luke’s medical knowledge. Modern pharmacology reveals this to be a remarkable example of the historic selection of effective medicines in the first century AD. The evidence for St. Luke being a healer comes from the Epistle to the Colossians 4:14: “Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.” “Physician” textually replaces the literal translation of “one who heals” from the Greek.

Olive oil remains a traditional treatment in the Near East for wounds, sores, and infections. Modern controlled studies support this, suggesting that oleocanthal, a prostaglandin-suppressant in the oil, relieves pain with a mechanism similar to ibuprofen. Olive oil is anti-inflammatory and has action against staphylococcal bacteria.3 Established wound infections with staphylococci can be nasty and hard to treat. Squalene in virgin olive oil appears to drive macrophage cells to eat dead tissue in wound repair.4 Wine tannins also have an anti-staphylococcal effect, as well as adhesive properties that may assist wound healing.5 Perhaps gluing cuts is nothing new. Anthocyanins in wine have been shown to accelerate keratinocyte cells in healing wounds, migrating through the skin’s growing epidermis.6

The Samaritan applies the wine aseptically, avoiding hand contact and pouring it into the victim’s raw stab wound. It begs the question whether the artist had actually seen someone experienced doing this. Similarly convincing are the victim’s pallor from shock and head position of semi-consciousness.

St. Luke described a priest and later a Levite priest’s assistant ignoring the victim. They are in the central background of the painting. The middle ground shows a wealthy aristocratic couple looking on but doing nothing. The man wears medieval headgear. The high-crown hat worn by the aristocratic woman suggests a date of around 1600, as they came into fashion from the late 1500s. The Samaritan’s hat décor and Florentine scroll motifs gravitate against a date from much later.

There are two other scenes with the Samaritan in the painting. In the middle ground, he removes the victim, who is once more dressed, on his horse. In the right background, he pays the innkeeper to look after him. In both images of the victim, his above-knee breeches have designer color-slashes showing the lining, all suggesting the late 1500s. Moving the victim quickly would probably have killed him had bowel or a blood vessel been cut, so in this version at least he had a lucky outcome.7

The Samaritan is wearing a beautiful green hat with a cylindrical crown and a slight brim, ornamented with a torque, feather, and quatrefoil symbolizing the four evangelists. It displays wealth, aristocracy, and power. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century church paintings showed headdress as Romaine helmets or turbans,8 with fewer personal hats of the time. This would have been influenced by more than thirty years of Ottoman-Venetian warfare in the seventeenth century, which introduced authentic Turkish dress into art. Besides Doge Leonardo Loredan with his gold cloth cap band of diamond and hexagon shapes,9 and other fifteenth-century doges, ornate tall hats for men are rare in the early modern period. Plain high caps occur in Italian and northern European art from about 1460–1510; those with square-edged cylinder tops are rare. Early soft-top high caps are common, high-status ones having top cornices, occasionally pressed in felt like that of Piero della Francesca’s striking Federico de Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino of 1465, in the Uffizi Gallery. Plainer examples are Dirk Bouts’ possible image of Jan van Winckele,10 a man by the master of the view of St. Gudula, c. 1480,11 and Alexander Mornauer, 1464–88.12

The status of the Samaritan repeats in his horse’s fine rosettes on the halter, shiny pendants on the reins’ cover and harness neck collar, and the Florentine scrollwork of the wine flask, repeated on the panels below the pommel on the front of the saddle. The greatest artistic skill and attention are in the face of the Samaritan, his hat, the flask, and the saddlery. That could have been to emphasize his virtue in contrast to the violence, or because the simplicity of the other figures was done by an amateur.

There is such a marked contrast in skill and style between the center of the picture and the periphery that the work of a painting master and a private student seems more likely than a master and a studio assistant. A student in the Castle’s Ducal Court could have had a hand in the painting. Potential candidates are Duke Paolo Giordano Orsini II,13 a discerning collector and amateur artist, or his wife Isabella Appiani, Princess of Piombino, a descendant of the Medici, who married the Duke in 1622. The Odescalchi family bought the castle in 1696 and their inventory from 1707 lists, by this Duke, a similarly historic genre scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Landscape with the story of Leto. He also published a book of Rimes and Satires. His dates, 1591–1656, are a good fit for the analysis.

Of the artists in nearby Rome during the Duke’s early years, four notably painted and drew secular portraits in a plain but masterful realism like Holbein. One was the only woman member of Rome’s Academia di S. Luca, the outstandingly-talented Lavinia Fontana, 1552–1614. The Academia, founded in 1577, was still in its infancy educating young artists.14 Other master candidates are the Academia’s presidents, Federico Zuccaro and Ottavio Leoni, or Giuseppe Ghezzi.15

If the Samaritan is partly the Duke’s work, it says a lot about his esthetic mindset and view of humanity—a stark contrast to the apparent assassinations committed by his namesake grandfather, whose wife, her cousin, and his mistress’ husband all died unexpectedly and conveniently for him. Immersion in the arts can stop a lot of suffering when death and violence are not leaders’ preoccupation.

Paolo Giordano II’s father was Duke Virginio, both a warrior and an arts lover. When Virginio sought military help in England in 1600, Shakespeare took his name for Duke Orsino, who opens Twelfth Night with, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Virginio attended the play and Queen Elizabeth I danced a vigorous Galliard herself at age sixty-seven.16

Commissioned studio copying, done inexpensively, can sometimes explain master-assistant style variation. This can be evidenced by an absence of radio-opaque, white-lead paint construction lines on x-ray, which remains a future research option. Their presence could alternatively substantiate originality and reveal the leading artist’s planning.17

The Samaritan’s flask looks rigid and metallic, with a central spout in the lid. It appears to be bronze with silver inlay of Florentine scroll work. It could have come from the Medici Court in Florence where Paolo Giordano II grew up. Isabella de’ Medici was his grandmother. We have not found any other examples in paintings or surviving objects. Analyzing a Genoese painting recently, we were able to find a seventeenth-century fluted pewter jug comparator, but only one, and after a lot of work. Object extinction, but for images in paintings, is a useful reference tool. The silver contrasts with the yellow metal on the harness and enhances the range of wealthy imagery, emphasizing in turn the Samaritan’s humility and altruism. Skillful draughtsmanship makes his eyes and wispy moustache convincingly Central Asian, suggesting a life-model. This amplifies the sense of shame that only a stranger can be bothered. Was he a diplomat or a merchant?

The caption above is the first chapter of the parable in the New Testament, “EVANGELI + LUC + CAP + X.”

The town in the background has a Dutch style, with sketchy buildings in a block of hazy color. The Dutch technique was to apply a bluish background landscape. The founder of the Dutch school in Italy, Pieter van Laer, arrived in 1625. They were called the Bamboccianti, satirizing van Laer’s unattractive appearance. Dutch influence in Italy lasted a century.

Heinrich Aldegrever’s 1554 Samaritan woodcut series shows him in a plain high cap. His Samaritan supports the victim’s head with his left hand and pours fluid into a head wound on his temple from a bottle wrapped in protective straw, possibly Chianti, like bottles today. He later pays the innkeeper for the victim’s care. Aldegrever’s monogram imitates Albrecht Dürer’s.18 Aldegrever’s work could have influenced the Bracciano artists who condensed the series idea onto one canvas. A fresco in Umbria of Il buon Samaritano attributed to Scilla Pecennini19 of 1580–1600, has the Samaritan in a plain high square-top hat with a brim. It is otherwise dissimilar to the Bracciano version.

A sixth-century depiction of the Good Samaritan survives. It looks Byzantine with Greek text and is in the mauve pages of the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, housed in Rossano Cathedral, Calabria.20 Believed to have been created in Syria, it shows the virtuous Samaritan haloed. In a frieze, he tends the victim with open hands, then receives from an angel a white robe, ointment bowl, and a large spatula, suggesting that conventional Romano-Syrian wine-oil ointment for wound care was thick. He seats the victim on his mule and pays the white-robed innkeeper for the care. The idea of considerate aftercare is prominent in importance across ten centuries of selected images from the parable.

In summary, the Bracciano Samaritan looks like a forgotten Asian, possibly by an early modern Roman portrait expert teaching an Orsini court student.


  1. Building Family Identity: The Orsini Castle of Bracciano from Fiefdom to Duchy (1470-1698). Eds. Paolo Alei, Max Grossman. Peter Lang Ltd, Witney, UK, 2019.
  2. The huge Renaissance castle, towering over the crater lake Lago Bracciano, is still owned by the Odescalchi family and open to the public. It will be familiar to fans of the recent Netflix series, The Medici.
  3. Taheri M, Amiri-Farahani L. “Anti-Inflammatory and Restorative Effects of Olives in Topical Application.” Dermatology Research and Practice, 2021. Free online access: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/drp/2021/9927976/
  4. Sánchez-Quesada C, López-Biedma A, Toledo E et al. “Squalene Stimulates a Key Innate Immune Cell to Foster Wound Healing and Tissue Repair.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. Sep 30; 2018. Free online access: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30363968/
  5. Chen C, Yang X, Li SJ et al. “Red wine-inspired tannic acid-KH561 copolymer: its adhesive properties and its application in wound healing.” RSC Adv. 2021 Jan 27; 11 (9): 5182–5191. Free online access: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35424430/
  6. Évora A, Freitas V, Mateus N et al. “The effect of anthocyanins from red wine and blackberry on the integrity of a keratinocyte model using ECIS.” Food Funct. 2017 Nov 15; 8 (11): 3989–3998. Anthocyanins color black grapes and copper beech trees.
  7. Graves R. Goodbye to All That. Folio Society. London, 1981. Robert Graves saw abdominal gunshot wounds in the First World War with no access to immediate, aseptic surgery. He was impressed that the only chance of survival lay in keeping still for 24 hours.
  8. Romaine means ancient Roman objects interpreted in Renaissance style, typically, for helmets, with pointed visors. The Ottoman turban in so many paintings is that of Aegean sailors.
  9. Leonardo Loredan, 1501, by Giovanni Bellini, National Gallery, London (NGL). Sixteenth-century color slash breeches in Venice were characteristically worn below the knee. It is not recorded whether they disturbed the Doges, but some observers found these lavish new fashions ridiculous. A Venetian painter seems excluded fashion-wise.
  10. NGL
  11. NGL
  12. NGL
  13. https://www.getty.edu/vow/ULANFullDisplay?find=&role=&nation=&subjectid=500121835 He acceded the Dukedom in 1615. Being the young student painter would explain it staying in the collection.
  14. Fontana’s husband was her agent and he looked after their children. The eponymity of the Academia di S. Luca and the medical evangelist are interesting. St. Luke meant a lot to them—they had the power to pardon a condemned man on St. Luke’s day. Sale and exhibition attributions of the Roman group’s unsigned portrait drawings overlap a lot. More research is needed into these important, high-quality works, the best of which are breathtaking.
  15. Zuccaro or Zuccari, 1539–1609, developed the Academia. Leoni, 1578–1630, did so later. Most Roman painters were forging early baroque church works. They, of course, are not absolutely excluded. Neither is a Florentine master, though Florence was past its peak at the time, while Roman art was ascending. Prominent painters in the circle whom we thought unlikely candidates were: Pietro Testa, Giacinto Brandi, Ciro Ferri, Salvator Rosa, Giovanni Lanfranco, Francesco Albani and Domenichino. Many other contemporaries were also excluded on style.
  16. Hotson L. The First Night of ‘Twelfth Night’. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1954.
  17. Dating copies is much trickier.
  18. Dürer never depicted The Good Samaritan. Aldegrever was influenced by the Italian engraver Zoan Andrea (1475–1505). Duke Paolo Giordano Orsini II collected such prints as Aldegrever’s.
  19. Catalogo generale dei beni culturali, codice 1000013659
  20. See: https://www.en.museocodexrossano.it/schede/il-codex_69/ for history and for an image: https://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rossano_Gospels#/media/File:RossanoGospelsFolio007vGoodSamaritan.jpg Both accessed May 2022. Use of a medical spatula in Roman times for pushing ointment into wounds makes every sense and good surgeons even then would have realized to keep them clean.


Many thanks go to Dr. Paolo Alei, Curator, Castle of Bracciano, Lazio, Italy, for his friendly encouragement and unhesitating permission to use the author’s photograph of the painting.

STEPHEN MARTIN is a retired British neuropsychiatrist and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. He now lives in Thailand, where he helped to found the Baan Dong Bang Museum, which exhibits Asian and European art in an underprivileged community.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 14, Issue 4 – Fall 2022

Spring 2022




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