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Madonna and Child

Attributed to Bonaccorsi Pietro called Perin del Vaga

(Florence 1501 - Rome 1547)

This Madonna and Child has been the focus of a heated debate regarding its attribution. While not all critics accept the name of Perin del Vaga, it is today the most convincing proposal. The panel has formed part of the Borghese Collection since at least 1693, when it was mentioned in the inventory of that year. Over the centuries, the work was painted over on numerous occasions, such that its original appearance was altered. Only in 2008 did a complete restoration operation return it to its pristine state.


Object details

Inventory
393
Location
Date
first half of the 16th century
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on panel
Dimensions
cm 115 x 81
Frame

Salvator Rosa, 135.5 x 108.5 x 6.8 cm

Provenance

Borghese Collection, cited in Inv. 1693, room IV, no. XI; Inv. 1790, room IV, no. 8; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 21; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 2020-2021 Udine, Castello di Udine
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 2007/2008 Paola Tollo

Commentary

The history of the debate over the attribution of this painting has been quite complex and is still not completely resolved. As late as 1959, Paola Della Pergola (pp. 100-101) left the question open, providing only a generic ‘Roman master of Michelangelo’s circle’ in the Borghese catalogue of that year. Before her, Federico Zeri made the oral suggestion of Battista Franco; yet Della Pergola was not convinced. Decades prior, Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 190) and Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 215) had ascribed the work to Giulio Romano. More recently, critics have continued to propose a variety of names, with Elena Parma Armani (2001, pp. 13-38) opting for a follower of Perin del Vaga (Pietro Bonaccorsi), Nicole Dacos for Perin himself and Paul Johannides for Gianfrancesco Penni (see Herrmann Fiore 2008, p. 48).

For her part, Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2008, pp. 34-72) unhesitatingly upheld the name of Bonaccorsi, noting a connection with a drawing held at the British Museum, which she deemed a preparatory study for the painting. In her opinion, this Madonna and Child is a product of the first period of the artist’s training in Rome under Giovanni da Udine, who – she believed – collaborated in the execution of this panel, painting several meticulously rendered details in the lower portion, including the book, the bird and the fruit basket.

Recently, Caterina Furlan (2020) rejected this hypothesis, as she was not able to detect stylistic correspondences between the work in question and the respective oeuvres of the two painters; yet she did not propose a different attribution.

The painting has formed part of the Borghese Collection since at least 1693, when it was referred to in the inventory of that year as ‘a painting on panel roughly 5 spans high. The Madonna and Child, no. 29, with a gilded frame, by Andrea del Sarto’. That this entry corresponds to our panel is confirmed by the number 29, which is still visible in the lower right-hand corner. The following inventory of 1790 attributed the work to Bronzino, as did the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833.

The panel is of great interest for several peculiar elements which characterise it, each with a specific symbolic value. To begin with, the basket of fruit would later become the focus of a famous painting by Caravaggio; during the Renaissance, this motif was often incorporated into works of art as a means of evoking meanings associated with different types of fruit, in accordance with the iconography of both ancient and ecclesiastical cultures. Secondly, while birds often appear in representations of the Madonna and Child, here the animal does not correspond to those species traditionally depicted in this type of iconographic representation, in particular the goldfinch. Rather, the bird perched at the bottom of the composition is the rarer bee-eater, recognisable by the colour of its plumage. Yet our current knowledge of the circumstances behind the execution of this work does not allow us to provide an explanation for its presence. Another distinctive element is the Book of Psalms in the Virgin’s right hand. Mary in fact appears to have been interrupted in her reading by her Son, who is about to embrace her. Two sentences of the open pages are legible, traceable to the Old Testament: the first is connected to the coming of the Redeemer, while the second is from the liturgy of the dead. As the two passages do not appear consecutively in the Holy Scriptures, it is evident that the artist made a specific choice, perhaps following the instructions of the patron of the work to include this pair of phrases. Other elements, finally, contribute to creating an image midway between the ideal and the real: in addition to the decorated carpet, the portrayal of the Virgin – with the cabochon tiara that adorns her head, her erect position and the fixity of her gaze – recalls representations of aristocratic women in the Renaissance (see Hermann Fiore 2008).

In 2008, a thorough restoration operation removed the numerous layers of repainting which concealed the work’s original appearance (see Tollo 2008, pp. 77-86).

Pier Ludovico Puddu




Bibliography
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 254;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 190;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 215;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 100-101, n. 144;
  • P. Della Pergola, Gli Inventari Aldobrandini, in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXII, 1960, pp. 435, 444;
  • K. Rozman, Slikar Franc Kavčič/Caucig in njegove risbe po slikah starih mojstrov, in “Zbornik za umetnostno zgodovino”, XI-XII, 1974-1976, p. 31;
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese 2000, p. 220, n. 2;
  • E. Parma Armani, Perino del Vaga, ingegno sottile e capriccioso, in Perino del Vaga. Tra Raffaello e Michelangelo, catalogo della mostra (Mantova, Galleria Civica di Palazzo Te, 2001), a cura di G. Algeri, Milano 2001, pp. 13-38;
  • 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. 130;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore (a cura di), Perin del Vaga, Giovanni da Udine, Marcello Venusti. Madonne in Galleria Borghese, studi e restauro, Roma 2008;
  • P. Tollo, Il restauro, in K. Herrmann Fiore (a cura di), Perin del Vaga, Giovanni da Udine, Marcello Venusti. Madonne in Galleria Borghese, studi e restauro, Roma 2008, pp. 77-86;
  • C. Furlan, in Giovanni da Udine tra Raffaello e Michelangelo. Zuan da Udene furlano, catalogo della mostra (Udine, Castello di Udine, 2021), a cura di L. Cargneletti, C. Furlan, Udine 2020, pp. 222-223.