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The Adoration of the Child

Pellegrini Pellegrino called Pellegrino Tibaldi

(Puria di Valsolda 1527 - Milan 1597)

The painting, signed and dated, is the first certain work by Pellegrino Tibaldi, who completed it when he was only 22 years old during a training period in Rome. It is of crucial importance, not only as a chronological anchor for tracing the artist's year of birth – not otherwise documented – but also as a basis for reconstructing the artistic features of his pictorial style. Indeed, he was able to combine the influence of Perino del Vaga (1501-1547), under whose guidance he made his debut in the papal capital, with the plastic and colouristic sensitivities of the art of Michelangelo and his followers, including Daniele da Volterra.

The central nucleus, with the Virgin, the Infant Jesus and St. Joseph, slightly off-centre to the left, appears almost engulfed by the convulsive, swirling movements of the surrounding figures, while in the foreground the Erythraean Sibyl, an unusual presence in depictions of similar subjects, unveils her prophecies, giving the painting an enigmatic yet fascinating aura of mystery.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 158,5 x 105,5

Possibly the Collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (Francucci 1613, p. 67v); recorded in inventories c. 1633 (no. 89, cf. Corradini 1998, p. 451); 1693 (no. 40, St. I); 1760 (no. 16, St. II); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833 (cf. Mariotti 1892, p. 86). Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.


Gloria in excelsis (on the scroll held up by the angel at the top)

Ja[m] nova progenies caelo demittitur alto (at the feet of the Virgin)

Peregrinus Tibaldi Bonon[iensis] Faciebat Anno aetatis suae XXII MDXLVIIII (on the central step)

Iudicii signum tellus sudore[m] madescet (on the margin oof the book)

E caelo rex adveniet per saecula futurus / Scilicet in carne praesens, ut Iudicet orbem /Vnde Deum cernent Incredulus atque fidelis (at the bottom, at the Sibyl’s feet)

  • 1986 Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale e Accademia di Belle Arti, Museo Civico Archeologico
  • 1992 Canberra, Australian National Gallery - Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria
  • 2003 Firenze, Casa Buonarroti
  • 2008 Roma, Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia
  • 2011 Roma, Fondazione Roma Museo - Palazzo Sciarra
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1958 R. Massi (frame)
  • 1978-80 L. Mucchi (diagnostics); G. Colalucci (restoration)
  • 2001 P. Tollo
  • 2007-08 P. Tollo


Nothing is currently known about the original commission of this painting or its collecting history prior to its arrival in the Borghese Collections. While it cannot be ruled out that it is to be identified with the ‘painting of a Nativity scene with frames gilded with a red taffeta covering’ (De Rinaldis 1936) listed among the works confiscated in 1607 by Pope Paul V Borghese from Cavalier d'Arpino (1568-1640) and later donated to his nephew Cardinal Scipione, the reference is far too vague to be more than merely speculative. Except for a possible but equally dubious mention in Scipione Francucci’s Galleria (1613), the first certain confirmation of the canvas in the collection is to be found in a list of paintings, without references or date, transcribed and published by Sandro Corradini (1998). This was more recently commented on by Stefano Pierguidi (S. Pierguidi, “‘In materia totale di pitture si rivolsero al singolar Museo Borghesiano’. La quadreria Borghese tra il Palazzo di Ripetta e la Villa Pinciana”, Journal of the History of Collections, 26, 2014, 2, pp. 161-170), who argued that this is most likely Scipione Borghese’s postmortem inventory, dating it close to the latter's death in 1633. In 1650, Giacomo Manilli, the villa’s custodian, mentioned ‘the large painting [...] of the Virgin with Christ in her arms, and with many figures around her, [...] by Pellegrino da Bologna’ in his guide to Villa Pinciana, followed later by Carlo Cesare Malvasia, who in his biography of Tibaldi in Felsina Pittrice (1678) mentioned the Roman work as being in the same location.

The inventory of 1693 documented its temporary move to the Palazzo in Campo Marzio (see Della Pergola 1964), where it was still to be found in 1760 (De Rinaldis 1937).

Pellegrino, believed to be a native of Puria di Valsolda, on the Como side of Lake Lugano (where his father, a bricklayer who had moved to Bologna for work, came from), nevertheless always claimed to be from Bologna and as such signed the canvas we see here in 1549, his first certain work and an essential cornerstone for the reconstruction of his beginnings as a painter. The painting, undoubtedly painted in Rome and illustrating perfectly the Michelangelesque influences absorbed by the young artist in the papal capital, features a complex iconography and extremely articulate composition that suggests a high-ranking patronage close to the papal curia (among the most plausible names are those of cardinals Giovanni Poggi, Guidascanio Sforza and Rodolfo Pio da Carpi). The fulcrum of the scene is the Virgin, placed centrally to the left, in an elevated position and intent on holding the wriggling, struggling Child Jesus at her side, clinging to his mother's robe.

Behind them, an ox and a braying donkey can be glimpsed in the darkness behind a manger, and the elderly Joseph, in a pose of adoring astonishment, on the left; an angel with a scroll bearing the inscription ‘Gloria in excelsis’; some unwinged figures arrive from the sky, while three other angels appear further away in the clouds. The right side is awash with figures. Some, crowded in the background, seem to be flowing with excited poses through an opening that can be glimpsed in the background, while others are more prominent and more clearly visible: an elderly man with almost grotesque features, very typical of Tibaldi's oeuvre, with a long beard, bare chest and arms held high above his head; a male figure dressed in red and green, leaning forward; a seated young man, his gaze turned towards the Child and his body half-covered by a piece of cloth. Finally, in sequence from top to bottom, a second bearded elderly man, a half-naked young man with a turban on his head and his hand outstretched in an allusive gesture, with his index finger raised, and a third man seen from behind, also clad only in scanty drapery, stretching his arms towards the sky with folded hands. In the foreground, there are piles of textiles, an open book with a long inscription on the floor, and a crouching female figure, dressed in old-style clothing and wearing a turban on her head, next to a curious young boy holding another volume on his shoulders. Further back, the profile of a young male face can barely be glimpsed, painted in dark tones. He is turning in prayer towards the Virgin, with whom he seems to be exchanging a direct glance – perhaps a concealed self-portrait of the painter.

The work is dotted with inscriptions, which can be interpreted on several levels. The step on which the group of the Holy Family rests contains two of them: one at the feet of the Madonna, ‘Ja[m] nova progenies caelo demittitur alto’, the other in the centre, containing the artist's signature ‘Peregrinus Tibaldi Bonon[iensis] Faciebat Anno aetatis suae XXII MDXLVIIII’. Further down, the female figure leaning to the left, identifiable thanks to the inscription as the Erythraean Sibyl, has both arms pointing towards an open book behind her, on which we read ‘Iudicii signum tellus sudore[m] madescet’; at her feet is a second volume on which rests a cartouche containing the longest inscription of all: ‘E caelo rex adveniet per saecula futurus / Scilicet in carne praesens, ut Iudicet orbem /Vnde Deum cernent Incredulus atque fidelis’. If read consecutively, the last two phrases make up the incipit of a liturgical drama known as the Song of the Sibyl, referenced by St Augustine in his De Civitate Dei (XXII, 23), and they allude to the announcement of the Messiah and the Apocalypse. The preceding one is taken from the fourth eclogue of Virgil's Eclogues (IV, 5-7), considered by the Christian tradition as prophesying the coming of Christ. The esoteric message, extremely erudite and undoubtedly dictated by specific patrons’ requests, thus lends this painting a distinctive and unusual charm.

On a formal level, an analysis of the individual figures immediately reveals the extent to which Pellegrino drew on Michelangelo's work, ranging from the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel to the Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli, in Rome, to the sculptural groups in the Medici Chapels of San Lorenzo in Florence. In this respect, the young artist showed himself to be extremely receptive and not only sensitive to the study of the anatomies of bodies, but also able to embrace Buonarroti's spatial dynamism, independently reassembling multiple elements, not, however, without some innovative ideas of his own (see Daniele 2023).

Several preparatory drawings for the Borghese painting are known: four are in the British Museum in London and one in the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe of the Uffizi (Gere 1962). These are, in the case of the English drawings, studies for the Sibyl (inv. Pp 2.187) and for the young man seated next to the Virgin (inv. 1963,0420.4), and two fragments of a cartoon for the lower part of the man’s left leg (inv. 1962,0714.2) and for the detail of the face, with part of the shoulders and a hand, of the figure with the headdress on the right margin of the composition (inv. 1962,0714.3). Part of the Florentine cartoon (inv. 13859F), on the other hand, relates to the central group of the Virgin and Child with St Joseph and shows the initial idea of the hand of the Joseph, modified in the final version, on which signs of reconsideration are still visible. There are also at least three copies of the painting, all of similar size to the prototype but without the inscriptions (the Liechtenstein Collections in Vaduz-Vienna, inv. GE14, canvas; the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, inv. GN215, panel; and the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, inv. 723, canvas, which is of poorer quality than the other two; Daniele 2023).

Giulia Daniele

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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008163, Musi T., 1979; agg. Barchiesi S., 2006.