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The Art of Identification

Armed with an Identity
Italian<br><i>Coat of arms of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579-1633)</i>, c. 1620-30<br>Bronze<br>Minneapolis Institute of Arts<br>The Miscellaneous Works of Art Purchase Fund
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Coat of arms of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579-1633), c. 1620-30
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Miscellaneous Works of Art Purchase Fund


A coat of arms is a design, usually in a shield shape, that identifies an individual or a family. In medieval Europe, knights in armor going into battle or jousting in tournaments carried shields and banners displaying their coats of arms or other heraldic emblems. (Heraldry is the system of designing and assigning coats of arms.) These vivid symbols in bold colors helped soldiers tell friend from foe.

Coats of arms were granted by kings and queens to their knights and nobles. This Italian coat of arms belonged to the Borghese family of Rome. It can be traced to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a great patron of the arts. This high-ranking churchman had one of the largest art collections in all of Europe, and his support helped the sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini become 17th-century Italy’s leader in the baroque style of art. The coat of arms has a crowned eagle above a dragon, three cherubs just above the shield, and, at the very top, the Borghese family’s princely crown.

At first knights and nobles were free to chose their own symbols. But as more and more coats of arms were granted—and used as seals on legal documents as well as battlefield emblems—the imagery became strictly regulated. Today coats of arms are still used around the world for various purposes. But they are now granted to highly esteemed people whatever their social status.

To see a portrait of Cardinal Scipione Borghese by Bernini from the J. Paul Getty Museum, click here.

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1. The Borghese eagle and dragon emblems appear on the inkwell in this painting of a Borghese family member.
2. Close-up of the eagle and dragon on the Borghese coat of arms
3. This painting was made for an Italian church. The emblem of the Fiorenzi family in the lower left corner let worshipers know that it was paid for by Pier Filippo Fiorenzi, a church official.
Il Grechetto (Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione), The Immaculate Conception with Saints Francis of Assisi and Anthony of Padua, 1650, oil on canvas, Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund


November 2009