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Attributed to Bonaccorsi Pietro called Perin del Vaga

(Florence 1501 - Rome 1547)

Traditionally attributed to Perin del Vaga (Pietro Bonaccorsi), the painting derives from a model by Raphael which is known through several drawings. The close relationship with a work with the same subject painted by Gian Francesco Penni has led some critics to propose an attribution to the latter artist; yet the similarities between the two works may be accounted for by the use of the same drawing on the part of both painters. The panel dates to the late 1510s, following the termination of the decorative programme for the Vatican loggias.

Object details

c. 1518
oil on panel
90 x 67 cm

Salvator Rosa, 108.5 x 87 x 7 cm


Borghese Collection, cited in Inv. 1693, room IV, no. 42; Inv. 1790, room IV, no. 22; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 34, no. 32. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1984 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2011-2012 Roma, Palazzo Sciarra
  • 2012-2013 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado; Parigi, Musée du Louvre
  • 2018 San Paolo del Brasile, Galleria SESI
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1903-1905 Luigi Barolucci
  • 1946 Carlo Matteucci
  • 2002-2003 (frame)
  • 2018 Andrea Parri, Paola Mastropasqua


With the exception of the dimensions, the work seems to correspond to the entry in the 1693 Borghese inventory which reads, ‘a painting of roughly two spans on panel with the Child seated on the ground on a white cloth and the adoring Madonna on her knees, with Saint Joseph and another figure on his knees [...]. Uncertain artist’. In the 1790 inventory, the work in question may be the generically described ‘Nativity scene, school of Raphael’, while in the 1833 Inventario fidecommissario, a painting is similarly described with the addition of the measurements and support material (‘3 spans 1 inch wide, 4 spans high, on panel’): this entry likely refers to our work. In his guidebook to Rome of several years later, Antonio Nibby (1841, p. 598) notes ‘a quality painting by Pierino del Vaga depicting the Holy Family’ in Palazzo Borghese, which no doubt refers to the panel in question (Tiberia 1984). The attribution to Perino was repeated by Morelli (1897, p. 138), who connected it to a drawing previously ascribed to Luca Penni (Albertina, Vienna). On the other hand, both Venturi and Longhi rejected the name of Bonaccorsi, the former arguing that the quality of the work was not up to his standard. Nonetheless, many other critics have upheld the traditional attribution (Berenson 1909, II, p. 260, Labò 1940, pp. 34-37; Della Pergola 1959, p. 109, Tiberia 1984, pp. 117-118, Stefani 2000, p. 223, Herrmann Fiore 2006, p. 151).

More recently, several major exhibitions have rekindled the complex debate over the identity of the artist of this work. Writing in Il Rinascimento a Roma del 2011-2012 (Palazzo Sciarra, Rome), the catalogue of the event in which the work was displayed under the name of Perin del Vaga, Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2011, p. 281) summarised the views of critics on the question and concluded that more documentary evidence was need to definitively settle the matter.

By contrast, at the very recent exhibition Raphael. Les dernières Années (Prado, Madrid; Louvre, Paris), the panel was displayed as the work of Gian Francesco Penni. This attribution was made on the basis of detailed analysis and comparisons of other models, above all the tondo on panel with the same subject by Penni, held today at the Trinità della Cava, the abbey near Cava de’ Tirreni; the Borghese painting shows close connections with this work (Raphael 2018, p. 222).

In all likelihood the idea for both works derives from Raphael, as is suggested by several drawings that are similar to them (on this point, see Herrmann Fiore 2011, p. 281). Particularly relevant in this regard is the drawing held at the Uffizi, which contains the subject within an arched border. This detail serves to link the drawing with both the rectangular Borghese panel and the above-mentioned tondo of the same subject by Penni, thus suggesting that the two paintings share a common derivation.

This element therefore gives rise to two theories: on the one hand, the two artists may have individually translated Raphael’s idea into painting, which the artist from Urbino studied in several drawings; on the other, the two works may be by the same painter, in which case the attribution to Penni is the more solid proposal, given that it is known that he painted the work in Cava.

Support for the first hypothesis comes from the fact that several details of the Borghese Holy Family reappear in a latter variation on the theme painted by Perino, namely the so-called Basadonne (or Baciadonne) Altarpiece in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which was executed in the mid-1530s. In this work, the face of the Holy Father is of the same type used for Joseph in our panel. In addition, the same stylised rendering of the trees is found in both paintings (Tiberia 1984).

The kneeling Virgin occupies the right portion of the scene. She holds one hand on her chest as a sign of adoration while resting the other on the shoulders of the Infant John the Baptist, as if to introduce him to the Child. On the left, Joseph is about to raise Jesus, who is lying on the ground on a white cloth, which probably alludes to the shroud. The dragon sculpted on the marble frieze on which Joseph is seated is also symbolic: it can be interpreted as a Christian reference to sin or more simply as an example of that propension for mythological archaeological details, which were frequently incorporated by Raphael and his collaborators in the Vatican loggias (Tiberia 1984). The ruins of an ancient archaeological structure dominate the centre of the composition, as if to divide it in two. A hut leans up against part of the building, next to which are visible an ox and an ass. A landscape opens into the background on either side of the construction.

Our panel recalls The Madonna delle Rovine in Kingston Lacy, Dorset, which is ascribed to Raphael’s school. The architectural ruins are similar in the two works, in particular the marble frieze on which the Child is seated in the latter painting (Herrmann Fiore 2011, p. 281; Raphael, 2018, p. 226). The incorporation of these elements, together with the capital lying on the ground, attest to the artist’s familiarity with antiquarian culture and his taste for the effect produced by fragments of ancient structures.

Most critics find Herrmann Fiore’s (2011, p. 281) dating of the work to roughly 1540 too late, proposing rather to locate it close to the years of the decoration of the Vatican loggias, namely the end of the 1510s (Freedberg 1961, p. 417; Tiberia 1984; Raphael, 2018, p. 224).

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno MDCCCXXXVIII. Parte seconda moderna, Roma 1841, p. 598.
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 307. 
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 213.
  • H. Ullmann, recensione a: A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese (1893), in “Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft”, XVII, 1894, p. 162.
  • G. Morelli, Della Pittura Italiana. Studi Storici Critici: Le Gallerie Borghese e Doria Pamphili in Roma, (trad. G. Frizzoni) Milano 1897, p. 138.
  • G. Lafenestre, E. Richtenberger, La peinture en Europe. Rome. Les Musées, les Collections particulières, les Palais, Paris 1905, p. 43.
  • J.A. Rusconi, La Villa, il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Bergamo 1906, p. 35.
  • B. Berenson, The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance, (2a ed.), New York 1909, p. 260.
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1912, n. 464.
  • O. Fischel, School of Raphael. The Nativity, in “Old Master Drawings”, II, 1927, p. 5.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 222.
  • B. Berenson, Pitture Italiane del Rinascimento (trad. it. E. Cecchi), Milano 1936, p. 388.
  • M. Labò, ad vocem Vaga, Pietro Bonaccorsi detto, in U. Thieme, F. Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, XXXIV, Leipzig 1940, pp. 34-37.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma (“Itinerari dei Musei e monumenti d’Italia”, XLIII), Roma 1951, p. 23.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 109, n. 159.
  • S.J. Freedberg, Painting of the Hight Renaissance in Roma and Florence, Cambridge 1961, p. 417.
  • P. Della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (II), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXVIII, 1964, p. 433.
  • V. Tiberia, in Aspetti dell’Arte a Roma prima e dopo Raffaello, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Museo di Palazzo Venezia, 1984), a cura di D. Bernini, Roma 1984, pp. 117-118 n. 42.
  • N. Dacos, in Andrea da Salerno nel Rinascimento meridionale, catalogo della mostra (Padula, Certosa di San Lorenzo, 1986), a cura di G. Previtali, Firenze 1986, pp. 108-110.
  • P. Joannides, Raphael, his studio and his copysts, in “Paragone”, XLIV, 1993, 523/525, p. 16.
  • P. Joannides, Raphael and his circle, in “Paragone”, XLI, 2000, terza serie, 30, p. 18.
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese 2000, p. 223, 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. 151.
  • A. Coliva, Minime “precisioni” nella Galleria Borghese, in “Paragone”, Ser. 3, LIX, 2008, 80, p. 68.
  • K. Hermann Fiore, in Il Rinascimento a Roma. Nel segno di Michelangelo e Raffaello, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Sciarra, 2011-2012), a cura di M.G. Bernardini, M. Bussagli, Roma 2011, p. 281, n. 42.
  • Raphael. Les dernières Années, catalogo della mostra (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2012. Parigi, Musée du Louvre, 2012-2013), a cura di T. Henry, Paris 2012, pp. 222-227, n. 57.