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Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (Madonna dei Palafrenieri)

Merisi Michelangelo called Caravaggio

(Milan 1571 - Porto Ercole 1610)

The painting was commissioned in 1605 by the members of the powerful Palafrenieri archconfraternity which, following the renovation of the basilica of St. Peter’s, asked the painter for a new work to replace an old painting that had decorated the altar of their chapel dedicated to St. Anne. Painted within a few months, in April 1606 the work was shown to the pious devout. It was removed shortly afterward to be moved to the nearby church of Sant'Anna dei Palafrenieri, where it was seen by Scipione Borghese, who bought it for 100 scudi. The motives for its removal are uncertain, though critics cite reasons of decorum – such as the Virgin’s cleavage and the nakedness of the child no longer in diapers – or for theological reasons. Whatever the real reasons, Scipione Borghese managed to obtain the painting for his own picture gallery, satisfying his desire for possession.

The painting depicts Mary, portrayed while, with the help of Jesus, she crushes a snake at her feet – a symbol of sin – assisted by Anne, mother of the Virgin and protector of the confraternity, portrayed as a humble old commoner, with a wrinkled face scarred by time.

Object details

oil on canvas
292 x 211 cm

19th century frame


Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1606; Inv. 1693, room I, no. 13; Inv. 1790, room IX, no. 1; Inv. 1794, p. 694; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 13.; purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

  • 1914 Roma, Palazzo Corsini;
  • 1922 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti;
  • 1951 Milano, Palazzo Reale
  • 1952 Utrecht, Centraal Museum;
  • 1952 Anversa, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten;
  • 1986-1987 Roma, Palazzo Barberini;
  • 1999 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado;
  • 1999-2000 Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes;
  • 2000 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1914 Tito Venturini Papari;
  • 1936 Carlo Matteucci (restauro);
  • 1988 Seracini e Lapucci (indagini diagnostiche);
  • 1996 Elena Zivieri, Guido Piervincenzi (indagini diagnostiche);
  • 1997 Giantomassi e Zari (restauro);
  • 1997 Susanna Sarmati (cornice).


On 31 October 1605, following the renovation of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the members of the powerful Arciconfraternita dei Parafrenieri decided to commission a new altarpiece depicting the Virgin with St Anne and the Infant Jesus, destined to replace the old painting by Leonardo da Pistoia and Jacopino del Conte, the format of which was no longer compatible with the renovated chapel. 

The canvas, entrusted to Caravaggio some time before 1 December 1605 – date of the first down payment made to the artist – was completed within a few months and delivered by the painter on 8 April 1606 to the Dean Antonio Tirollo, who had it placed above the altar and almost immediately removed (Spezzaferro 1974. This issue wa salso reviewed by Rice 1997; Coliva 1998; Beltramme 2001). In fact, on 16 April 1606, some workers were ordered to take down the altarpiece and carry it to the nearby church of Sant’Anna dei Palafrenieri, where Cardinal Scipione Borghese saw it on 20 July of the same year and purchased it for 100 scudi – more than the 75 scudi the Arciconfraternita had paid Caravaggio.

Tradition has it that the canvas was rejected because of its excessive realism, which made it not sacred enough to be worshiped by the faithful and in contrast with the principles of decorum set by the Counter-Reformation in regards to the portrayal of sacred subjects. In an attempt to overturn this version, Walter Friedländer (1954; Id. 1955), followed by Jacob Hess (1954, pp. 273-275), proved that, based on historical evidence, this refusal was not caused by iconographic or dogmatic implications, but rather by the impossibility for the chapel to welcome the new canvas, which was taller than the recess it was intended to occupy. According to the scholar, the confraternity’s attempt to find a location for the altarpiece in the chapel is proof in itself of their good intentions, which were offset by Scipione’s collecting ambitions, eager to possess Caravaggio’s painting. 

For his part, Luigi Spazzaferro (1974) believed the refusal concerned a different work, the Death of the Virgin, painted by Caravaggio for Santa Maria della Scala, the vicissitudes of which were projected negatively onto the Parafrenieri canvas by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio from Como, whom the confraternity asked for assistance in deciding the painting’s fate. In fact, according to Spazzaferro, the prelate influenced the original patrons, leading them to decide on the removal of the work. 

Regardless of these speculations, it is certain that the canvas presents certain features that were not exactly suitable for a devotional painting, such as the excessively humanized depiction of Anne who, though she was the patron saint of the Parafrenieri, was portrayed as a wrinkled, elderly commoner in an ancillary position considering the overall structure of the piece (Settis, 1975). In fact, according to critics this apparent separation of the Saint, whose name means “grace” in Hebrew, was viewed with suspicion by the Church, which saw it as an estrangement of “grace” from the effort for the salvation of humanity. Her figure, so uniquely perturbing, was likened by Salvator Settis (1975) to the statue of Demosthenes and the subsequent iconography of meditation, the model of which had apparently been suggested to the painter by Giovanni Zaratini Castellini, a man of letters.  

Furthermore, according to several scholars, two other details must have been considered especially alarming: the Virgin’s low-cut neckline and the physicality of the baby Jesus, considered too grown to be held in such a way by his mother, his gesture – helping his mother trample the serpent’s head – likely to be misinterpreted by uncompromising Catholics. In fact, the painting is a representation of a famous episode in Genesis (3, 15) – “ipsa (or ipso) conteret caput tuum” (she [or he] shall bruise your head) – a verse that for centuries had been at the heart of a conflict between Catholics and Lutherans. The former, who read it as ipsa – the Virgin – attributed to Mary, symbol of the Church, the merit of defeating sin, while Protestants referred this role solely to the Son (ipso), who in Caravaggio’s painting shows little involvement in the design of redemption compared to the Mother. 
Finally, according to Maurizio Marini (1989), one of the reasons that led to the removal of the altarpiece was the depiction of Lena, or Maddalena Antognetti, in the role of the Virgin, a choice that went against the directives of the Council of Trent, which prohibited the representation of recognisable figures in the guise of sacred personages. On the other hand, Roberto Longhi (1928-29) insisted that, in executing the painting, Caravaggio, unawares of all these issues, had simply drawn inspiration from a canvas with the same theme by Ambrogio Figino produced for the Church of San Fedele in Milan. This theory was taken up and defended many years later by Maurizio Calvesi (1986), who not only dated the painting in 1606 but also placed it before the rejection of the Death of the Virgin.

Whatever the actual reasons may have been, it is evident that Cardinal Scipione took advantage of the situation to secure the painting, which is mentioned as part of the Borghese Collection for the first time by Scipione Francucci (1613): “Jesus and the Mother trample two (sic!) asps, by Caravaggio.” Dated by Longhi between 1604 and 1606, the painting was probably executed between September and December 1605, which seems to be confirmed by a letter from Gian Vittorio de’ Rossi to Giovanni Zarattini Castellani divulged by Paola della Pergola in 1958. In fact, using an epigram by Zarattini Castellani (recently discovered by Alice Maniaci, 2020), Della Pergola set the painting in the second half of 1605, a time when Caravaggio is recorded to have been staying in the house of the jurist Andrea Ruffetti. 

Antonio Iommelli

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