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Holy Family with the Young St John the Baptist and St Elizabeth

Pulzone Scipione

(Gaeta c. 1550 - Rome 1598)

This painting is counted among the artist’s masterpieces in the genre of religious art for the attention to detail and study of the light that brings out the figures in the foreground, emphasising the Madonna’s modesty and Elizabeth’s simple humanity. The scene offers a glimpse of domestic life, the virtuous intimacy of which is rendered through the spontaneity of the familiar gestures. The reworking of Renaissance models, first and foremost Raphael, and the search for expressive simplicity in keeping with the ‘decorum’ required of religious images after the Council of Trent, render the painting emblematic of a new artistic language in which the representation of the sacred is located in an eternal dimension, a ‘timeless art’, as Federico Zeri famously described it.

There were already a few paintings by Scipione Pulzone in the Borghese Collection in the first decades of the seventeenth century, including portraits, a genre that had made him famous thanks to his skill in representing people ‘as if from life’. His talent in this genre was such that he received commissions from both the papacy and the most important members of the nobility.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 135 x 105

Borghese Collection (cited for the first time in Manilli 1650, p. 70); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese (1833, A, p. 14, no. 4). Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

  • 1982 Roma, Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia
  • 1993 Roma, Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia
  • 2000 Helsinki, Museo Amos Andersen
  • 2008 Roma, Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia
  • 2010 Kyoto, The National Museum of Art
  • 2011 Roma, Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia
  • 2013 Gaeta, Museo Diocesano, Castello Angioino Aragonese
  • 2018 Forlì, Musei di San Domenico
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1874
  • 1936 Augusto Cecconi Principi
  • 1965 Alvaro Esposti
  • 1993 Anna Maria Marcone e Paola Sannucci
  • 2000 Nicola Salini
  • 2009 Lidia Del Duca


This painting, neither the provenance of which nor the date it entered the collection are known, is described in Jacomo Manilli’s volume (1650, p. 70) as at the Villa Borghese in the ‘Terza Stanza di Dafne’ (‘Third Room of Daphne’): ‘sopra la Porta, per la quale s’entra in questa camera, il quadro della Madonna con Christo, e San Giovannino, con altre figure, è di Scipion Gaetano’ (‘above the door, through which one enters this room, the picture of the Madonna with Christ and the young St John the Baptist, with other figures, is by Scipione Gaetano’).

The work might have already been in the collection for some time. In the inventory of the estate of Giovanni Battista Borghese (1554–1609), brother of Paul V, drawn up in 1610 but unfortunately without attributions, we find a ‘quadro in tela con una Madonna con Xro picciolino, San Giovannino, S.ta Elisabeth et un altro santo con cornice d’albuccio toccato d’oro’ (‘painting on canvas with a Madonna and a baby Christ, young St John the Baptist, St Elizabeth and a male saint with a gilt wooden frame’). Appreciation for Pulzone’s works is confirmed by the presence of various paintings by the artist in the family’s inventories.

In the inventory of 1693, the painting is listed in the first room of the apartment in Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio (‘un quadro con la Madonna San Giovanni et Sant’Anna con San Giuseppe e Bambino tela d’Imperatore con N. [sic] di Scipione Gaetano’, or ‘a painting with the Madonna St John and St Anne with St Joseph and the Christ Child imperial canvas with N. [sic] by Scipione Gaetano’). It was listed again in 1809 among the group of paintings chosen by Camillo Borghese to decorate first his new residence in Turin, following his appointment by Napoleon as governor of the cisalpine departments, and later the one in Paris. When the works returned to the residence in Rome, in 1816, the painting was documented to have ‘some minor scratches’. At the end of the nineteenth century, the work was permanently moved to the Villa Pinciana along with the group of fideicommissary paintings.

Severely judged by Adolfo Venturi, who found the style of Pulzone’s painting to be ‘inspired by Barocci’s art’ but without the same ‘fluidity or fusion of hues’, Federico Zeri secured the work’s fortune in a famous text on the artist published in 1957, pointing to its value as an exemplary model of the new artistic language that had developed in the post-Tridentine cultural climate in connection with the debate on the decorum of religious images championed in Giovanni Andrea Gilio’s Dialoghi (1564).

The scene depicts a slice of domestic life, the virtuous intimacy of which is emphasised by the spontaneity of the familiar gestures, the tenderness of the two children, the serenely knowing face of the Virgin and the kindly, patient one of the elderly Elizabeth, who is affectionately holding her son John. The composition is the result of a masterful formal selection from the work of the great Renaissance masters, beginning with Raphael, whose Madonna Colonna seems to have been the direct inspiration for the figure of Mary, and references to Federico Barocci’s Madonna of the Cherries. A ‘regulated mix’ that, combined with a subtle archaism, led to a new approach to the representation of the sacred, aptly summed up by Zeri as ‘timeless art’.

The austere style of foreshortened cradle in the foreground, a prefiguration of the death of Christ, is closely analogous to the empty tomb in the Assumption of the Virgin that Pulzone painted for the church of Santa Caterina dei Funari between 1595 and 1598.

The success of the Borghese painting is attested by copies and numerous variations, including the St Prassede (Castrojeriz, Burgos, museum of the Collegiate Church), the Madonna of Divine Providence (Rome, monastery of San Carlo ai Catinari) and the variant in the Escorial, Madrid.

Simona Ciofetta

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  • A. Manazzale, Itinerario, I, Roma 1817, p. 240.
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  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 352
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  • F. Zeri, Pittura e Controriforma. L’Arte senza tempo di Scipione da Gaeta, Torino (1957) 1979, pp. 86-89, 100
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