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Madonna and Child with The Infant Saint John the Baptist

Pippi Giulio called Giulio Romano

(Rome c. 1499 - Mantua 1546)

Although an 18th-century inscription on the back of this panel ascribes the work to Giovan Francesco della Nunziatella (Giovan Francesco Penni?), critics have rather favoured an attribution to Giulio Romano on stylistic grounds. Infrared analysis conducted on the painting in 1999 revealed the presence of an underlying drawing quite similar to a study on paper by Raphael preserved at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The drawing may have been made by Raphael himself, who evidently conceived the work to represent only the Madonna and Child, while the infant Saint John the Baptist could be an addition incorporated by the student engaged to complete the panel. At the same time, we cannot exclude the possibility that the entire plan was conceived by Giulio Romano, given that critics believe that he was responsible for the actual painting. In this case, in addition to the Oxford drawing the artist could have drawn inspiration from other of Raphael’s compositions, such as the Madonna della Seggiola, echoes of which are apparent in the intimate proximity of the faces of the Virgin and Child. The figure of the infant John the Baptist, meanwhile, derives from Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo.


Object details

Inventory
374
Location
Date
second-third decade of the 16th century
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on panel
Dimensions
cm 126 x 85
Frame

Salvator Rosa, 145 x 105 x 8.5 cm

Provenance

Borghese Collection, first cited in Inv. 1693, room VII, no. 13 (?); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 24, no. 32; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 1984 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 1989 Mantova, Palazzo Ducale
  • 1992 Canberra, Australian National Gallery; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria
  • 2011-2012 Roma, Palazzo Sciarra
  • 2012-2013 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado; Parigi, Musée du Louvre
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1951 Augusto Cecconi Principi
  • 1989 Laboratorio della Soprintendenza
  • 1999-2000 Paola Azzaretti (restoration); INOA (diagnostics)

Commentary

The painting depicts the seated Virgin as she embraces the Son, with her face touching his. In her right hand, meanwhile, she holds a roll of swaddling bands, which has unfurled and fallen to the ground. To the left of the scene, the infant Saint John the Baptist extends his arms toward the Child to hand him the symbolic goldfinch, which foreshadows the Passion; Mary’s melancholic expression likewise seems to presage the same event. Both boys are shown standing, Jesus on a cushion and John on a drawer; thanks to their respective supports, they are given the same height within the composition. In the background we see a four-poster bed with a green drapery, while to the right a small dog appears in the shadow.

An inscription on the back of the panel reads ‘Giov. Francesco della Nunziatella’ (Giovan Francesco Penni?), written in 18th-century characters. This detail originally led scholars to search for the work in the 17th- and 18th-century Borghese inventories under this name.

Yet none of the entries with this attribution correspond to the work in question, whose dimensions and subject differ from those of the works ascribed to this painter (on this topic, see Della Pergola 1959, pp. 89-90, n. 126). On the other hand, another item in the 1693 inventory may well refer to our painting. This reads, ‘a painting on panel, roughly 5 spans, with the Madonna and the Child standing on a cushion and the infant Saint John the Baptist with a small dog, no. 135, with a gilded frame, by Leonardo da Vinci’. The measure of five spans comes quite close to the height of our painting (126 cm), while the description of several details – the Child standing on a cushion and the presence of the dog – make it likely that this is the work indicated by that entry. If this is the case, it would mean that the panel has formed part of the Borghese Collections since at least the late 17th century, notwithstanding the fact that we lack other information regarding its provenance.

In the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario, our panel is indicated by the entry which reads, ‘Holy Family, school of Raphael, 4 spans 1 inch wide, 5 spans 4 inches high, on panel’ (Della Pergola, 1959). Accepting the connection of the work with the school of Raphael, Venturi (1893, p. 182) was the first to propose the name of Giulio Romano (Giulio Pippi). His thesis received the support of Cantalamessa (1912, n. 374), Berenson (1909, II, p. 185, and 1936, p. 224) and Della Pergola (1959); Longhi (1928, p. 213), meanwhile, claimed that it was a derivation from Romano.

Later critics confirmed Venturi’s view. Anna Lo Bianco (1984, pp. 105-107) pointed to various elements that were typical of Pippi’s style, such as the shimmering colours of the shadows, which are given emphasis in the folds of the bodies and garments. In addition, the presence of the dog in the scene reflects the artist’s propension for including animals in his paintings. Finally, several iconographic details, such as the edge of the bed, the green drape and the support of the four-poster bed, allude to elements in other compositions by Giulio Romano, in particular the Madonna of the Cat (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples) and the Hertz Madonna (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome).

A restoration operation was conducted on the painting in 1999, in which the heavy layers of paint were removed which had altered the reading of the work, such that some critics had downgraded it to a product of Giulio’s workshop (Ferino Pagden 1989, p. 271). Infrared analysis carried out on that occasion showed an underlying drawing in which only the Virgin and Child are present, with Mary in the act of embracing her son. With her head turned in profile, she kisses him on his cheek, while Jesus playfully throws the veil at her with his left hand, an evident allusion to the motif developed by Raphael in a drawing held at the Ashmolean Museum di Oxford; indeed critics had already noted the connection of the Borghese panel to this study (Lo Bianco, 1984, p. 105; Oberhuber 1999, p. 248). The subsequent modification of the Child’s gestures and of the inclination of the Virgin’s face –  frontal and no longer in profile – together with the incorporation of the infant John the Baptist, completely changed the iconography of the painting: the intimate representation of the Mother and the Child was transformed into an episode that foretold the Passion of Christ.

This discovery gave rise to various reconstructions regarding the genesis of the painting. On the one hand, some critics believed that the drawing was by Raphael himself and that he had conceived the work to represent only the Madonna and Child, while Giulio Romano modified and completed the work, adding the third figure and consequently varying the appearances of the two original figures; in addition, Giulio presumably also incorporated a number of other details (Raphael 2012, p. 242). On the other hand, other scholars argued that the variation made to the main group had already been foreseen by Raphael, who left it to his student to include the more Michelangelesque figure of the infant John the Baptist (Herrmann Fiore 2005, p. 44, and 2006b, p. 170). At the same time, we cannot exclude the possibility that in addition to painting the panel Pippi also made the drawing (Raphael, 2012, pp. 242-244), perhaps inspired by the motifs used by Raphael in the Oxford study and more generally in the Madonna della Seggiola in Palazzo Pitti (Florence). Indeed the dynamic character of the embrace of the Mother and Child in the Borghese composition as well as the intimate proximity of their faces allude to the well-known panel by Raphael. The latter work also provided the model for the Madonna and Child in the Wellington Museum (Apsley House, London), which has been attributed to Giulio Romano; Della Pergola (1959) in fact noted similarities between that work and the panel in question. By contrast, the idea that Raphael was responsible for the actual painting of our composition, at least in part (Oberhuber 1999), is less likely, given that the colouring and the light-and-shadow contrasts are more typical of his student (Herrmann Fiore 2006b, p. 169).

The same gestures and expressiveness of the Child, with his arm extended in front of him, are apparent in the first version of a painting with the same subject, held today at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Attributed to Raffaellino del Colle, this work is also believed to derive from Romano (Zeri 1987, p. 112). X-ray analysis of that painting in fact revealed that the artist at first produced the same figurative details as the Borghese panel, perhaps initially intending to create a replica (Raphael, 2012, p. 244).

Other points of reference for our painting were provided Michelangelo: the twisting, elongated figure of the Virgin seems to echo the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, while the infant Saint John derives from the same subject represented in the Taddei Tondo, held today at the Royal Academy of London (Lo Bianco, 1984, p. 106; Joannides 1985, pp. 34-35; Jaffé 1992, p. 36; Raphael, 2012, p. 241).

The discovery of the underlying drawing also influenced scholars’ opinions regarding the chronology of the panel: while critics believe that the drawing itself was made sometime between 1512-13 and 1518, some maintain that Giulio’s completion of the painting occurred later, at a date following Raphael’s death in 1520 (Herrmann Fiore 2005, p. 44, and 2006b, p. 168; Raphael, 2012, p. 242).

Pier Ludovico Puddu




Bibliography
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 303;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 182;
  • G. Lafenestre, E. Richtenberger, La peinture en Europe. Rome. Les Musées, les Collections particulières, les Palais, Paris 1905, p. 31;
  • B. Berenson, The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance, (2a ed.), New York 1909, II, p. 185;
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1912, n. 374;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 213;
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  • D. Jaffé, in Rubens and the Italian Renaissance, catalogo della mostra (Canberra, Australian National Gallery; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, 1992), a cura di D. Jaffé, M. Chiarini, Canberra 1992, p. 36, n. 2;
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  • 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. 124 [Herrmann Fiore 2006a];
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