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Holy Family with angels

Roncalli Cristoforo called Pomarancio

Pomarance 1552 - Rome 1626)

The painting was first mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in the inventory of 1693, where it was ascribed to Pomarancio (Cristoforo Roncalli), an attribution which critics have since confirmed on stylistic grounds. The protruding elements in the lower part of the scene suggest that the work was conceived to be viewed from below, although we still do not know the context of its execution. Considered one of the artist’s best efforts, the painting dates to the opening years of the 17th century.


Object details

oil on canvas
155 x 110 cm

Salvator Rosa 181 x 136.5 x 9.5 cm


Borghese Collection, cited in Inv. 1693, room I, no. 31; Inv. 1790, room II, no. 6; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 17, no. 22; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


  • 1989 San Pietroburgo, Hermitage Museum
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
  • 2011 Roma, Complesso di Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
  • 2011-2012 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1911 R. Barone


While we do not know the context of its execution, this painting has formed part of the Borghese Collection since at least 1693, when the inventory of that year listed a ‘Madonna, Child and Saint Joseph with an angel who brings the crown for the head of the Virgin, in a gilded, engraved frame with eagles and dragons on the corners [...] by Pomarancio’. The next inventories, those of 1790 and 1833, ascribe the work to Pomarancio and his school, respectively.

The consistent description of the various inventories, reinforced by stylistic considerations, has led critics to confirm the attribution to Cristoforo Roncalli, called Pomarancio (Voss 1920, p. 538; Longhi 1928, p. 208; Della Pergola 1959, pp. 46-47; Volpe 1978, pp. 401-402; Chiappini di Sorio 1983, p. 110; Stefani 2000, p. 301; Herrmann Fiore 1992, pp. 25-26, and 2006, p. 109; Leli 2011, pp. 209-210; Pupillo 2011, p. 88). While Adolfo Venturi at first ascribed the canvas to Niccolò Circignani, a younger artist with the same nickname, he later accepted the name of Roncalli (Venturi 1893, p. 164, and 1934, p. 799).

The work depicts Saint Joseph and the Virgin holding the Child in their arms. While Joseph solemnly gazes toward Jesus, the seated Mary looks toward the observer. The footstool on which the Virgin rests her feet, together with other protruding elements in the lower portion of the canvas, suggest that the painting was meant to be observed from below. Two angels occupy the sides of the upper portion: one is about to place a wreath of flowers on Mary’s head, while the other holds out its arm, indicating the diagonal trajectory along which the entire composition develops (Stefani, 2000). The latter figure may have been inspired by Raphael’s Deliverance of Saint Peter in the Raphael Rooms of the Apostolic Palace. A classical-style building can be glimpsed in the dark background, of which a column and an entablature are visible.

The illumination coming from the upper left-hand corner as well as the protruding shapes in the foreground may be inspired by contemporary experiments of Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), as for example in the second version of The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, which dates to 1602 (Pupillo, 2011). The ray of light which strikes the figures directly creates a play of strong light and shadow contrasts on the folds of the garments, thus highlighting the dynamic character of the scene, evident above all in the twisting of the Child’s body and Joseph’s pose.

Although the work has always been labelled a Holy Family, certain elements which deviate from the traditional iconography of the subject have led scholars to propose interpretations of the work in a narrative rather than a devotional context. Indeed, neither the presence of a classical-style building nor the dynamism of the poses and gazes of the figures seems to correspond to standard representations of the theme. In light of these elements, one possible reading of the work – proposed by Marco Pupillo (2011) on the basis of an oral suggestion given by Alessandro Zuccari – is that the scene was inspired by a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, namely the moment preceding the flight into Egypt (Chiappini di Sorio (1983) had in fact already pointed to this episode): obeying the instructions of the angel that appeared to him in a dream, Joseph conducted Mary and the Child out of danger, in the wake of Herod’s order of the massacre of the innocents. The scene, then, may actually reflect the frantic minutes of preparing the flight into Egypt. Indeed the stick in the foreground, the nocturnal setting and the continued presence of the angel each suggests that the composition captures the instant immediately following Joseph’s dream. If we accept this interpretation, then Joseph’s busy, commanding gestures – which contrast with his passive role in traditional representations of the Holy Family – and Mary’s earnest expression indicating worry are more comprehensible.

Considered one of Pomarancio’s best efforts, the work can be dated to between 1602-03 (Schleier 1989, pp. 401-402) and 1605 (Chiappini di Sorio, 1983).

Two drawings connected to this canvas are known, one in Florence (Uffizi, inv. no. 15428 F) and the other in New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. no. 62.120.4).

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 249.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 164.
  • H. Voss, Die Molerei der Spätrenaissance in Rom und Florenz, Berlin 1920, p. 538.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I: La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 208.
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’Arte Italiana, IX.7, Milano 18341934, p. 799.
  • P. Pouncey, Two Drawings by Cristofano Roncalli, in “The Burlington Magazine”, XCIV, 1952, p. 356.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 46-47, n. 64.
  • C. Volpe, Una precisazione sul Roncalli, in “Paragone”, CCCXXXV, 1978, pp. 87-89.
  • I. Chiappini di Sorio, Cristoforo Roncalli detto il Pomarancio, in I pittori bergamaschi. 4. Il Seicento, I, Bergamo 1983, p. 110, n. 33.
  • E. Schleier, La pittura del Seicento a Roma, in La pittura in Italia. Il Seicento, a cura di M. Gregori, E. Schleier, Milano 1989, pp. 401-402.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, 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. 25.
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 301, n. 8.
  • 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. 109.
  • L. Leli, in Caravaggio a Roma. Una vita dal vero, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Complesso di Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, 2011), a cura di M. Di Sivo, O. Verdi, E. Lo Sardo, Roma 2011, pp. 209-210, n. 15.
  • M. Pupillo, in Roma al tempo di Caravaggio 1660-1630, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Venezia, 2011-2012), a cura di R. Vodret Adamo, II, Roma 2011, p. 88, n. III.11.