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The Infant Jesus Asleep

Fontana Lavinia

(Bologna 1552 - Rome 1614)

The painting, documented in the Borghese household from 1693, was made by Lavinia Fontana in 1591. It is a small-format variation of the well-known painting with the Holy Family of the Escorial. In this version, the painter has included the figures of Saint Elizabeth and the two angels who support the drapes of the canopy.

The underlying message here, that Truth can only be found by remaining silent, is revealed by the gesture of the child John who invites the observer to come closer and silently watch over Jesus as he sleeps, implicitly involving the viewer in an intimate and private atmosphere that translates the counter-reformation climate of the time very well.

Object details

datato 1591
oil on copper
cm 43 x 33

Salvator Rosa, 53.5 x 43 x 4 cm


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1693 (Inv. 1693, room XI, 85; Della Pergola 1955); Inv. 1790, room VI, no. 24; Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 9; purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

"LAVI... FACIE... 1591".
  • 2000 Cassino, Abbazia di Montecassino;
  • 2009 Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art;
  • 2010 Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum;
  • 2013 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti;
  • 2013 Parigi, Musée du Luxembourg;
  • 2021 Milano, Palazzo Reale.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1946 Carlo Matteucci (pulitura e ridipintura generale).


This painting is reported as belonging to the Borghese collection since 1693, indicated in that year’s inventory as a “painting on a panel (sic) of two spans of The Madonna with St Joseph St John and St Anne and the Child sleeping in a bed with no. 198 marked on the back and a silver frame with the coat of arms of Sir Cardinal Borghese carved by Lavinia Fontana.” This attribution to the Bolognese painter is duly reported in all of the Collection’s inventories and confirmed in 1955 by Paola della Pergola, who published the work as an original replica of a painting preserved at the Escorial and produced in Bologna in 1589 for Philip II of Spain. As suggested by Vera Fortunati (1998), for such a prestigious commission – from which the Borghese painting is derived – Lavinia adopted a very complex iconographic structure modelled on Raffaello Sanzio’s Madonna of Loreto (copy – Chantilly, Musée de Conde), Sebastiano del Piombo’s Madonna of the Veil (Naples, Museo di Capodimonte; Prague, Narodni Galerie), and Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Madonna of Silence (London, private collection), the latter a work produced for Vittoria Colonna and reproduced by the Bolognese artist in a painting preserved in Liverpool (Walker Art Gallery; see Cantaro 1993). The subject chosen by Fontana had already been tackled by Orazio Samacchini (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi; Germany, private collection), a Bolognese artist who was in touch with Prospero Fontana, Lavinia’s father, who in turn was very well acquainted with Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo’s works thanks to Giulio Bonasone and Giovanni Battista de’ Cavalieri’s engravings (Fortunati 1998).

The circumstances leading up to the commissioning of this copper plate are still unknown. According to Caroline Murphy (2003), the work was quite likely executed for Camillo Borghese, the future Pope Paul V, who in 1591 was the vice-legate in Bologna. In this capacity he encountered many local painters, among whom Lavinia, who in the meantime had already produced a number of replicas of the altarpiece in Madrid. In 1602, in fact, Father José de Sigüenza reported the existence of many copies of the Spanish painting, produced in the wake of the success of such a prestigious commission, for which Lavinia had been paid one thousand ducats (Pacheco 1649).

The painting depicts baby Jesus watched over and protected by Elizabeth, the child John, Joseph, and his mother, who is covering him with a thin veil. The scene is set in a small, refined room dominated by a magnificent canopy, the colour of which matches the bright, acid hues of the garments of the figures and is enhanced by the dark background and by the use of the copper support. As Stefania Biancani (2021) has recently recalled, the subject is full of iconographic significance, its many meanings enclosed in the motto “COR MEUM VIGILAT” which can be observed on the border of the bed on which baby Jesus is resting in the painting in Madrid. This expression – much like Symbolum LXIII of Achille Bocchi’s Symbolicae Quaestiones which recites Silentio Deum Cole (“adore God in silence”) – reminds us of the importance of contemplation and of silence in the pursuit of the Truth (see Urbini 1994; Fortunati 1998, Biancani 2021).

Antonio Iommelli

  • J. de Sigüenza, La fundación del monasterio de El Escorial, Madrid 1602, ed. Madrid 1988, p. 535;
  • F. Pacheco, El arte de la pintura, Madrid 1649, ed 1990, p. 94;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 171;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 205;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 221;
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell'Arte Italiana, IX, Roma 1933, p. 694;
  • A. De Rinaldis, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1939, p. 33;
  • B. Galli, Lavinia Fontana Pittrice, Imola 1940, p. 72;
  • P. della Pergola, Itinerario della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1951, p. 35;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 36, n. 45;
  • P. della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (III), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXX, 1965, p. 210;
  • R. Longhi, Saggi e ricerche 1925-28. Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. La Galleria Borghese, Firenze 1967, p. 353;
  • M. T. Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana bolognese: “pittora singolare” (1552-1614), Milano 1989, pp. 156-157;
  • M. T. Cantaro, Aggiornamenti e precisazioni sul catalogo di Lavinia Fontana, in "Bollettino d'Arte", LXXVIII, 1993, pp. 95-99;
  • S. Urbini, in Lavinia Fontana 1552-1614, catalogo della mostra (Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico, 1994), a cura di V. Fortunati, Milano 1994, pp. 184-185;
  • V. Fortunati, in Lavinia Fontana of Bologna: 1552 – 1614, catalogo della mostra (Washington DC, National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1998), a cura di V. Fortunati, Milano 1998, pp. 21-22;
  • C. P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana. A painter and her patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologna, Cambridge 2003, pp. 170-171;
  • 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. 142;
  • L. Bartoni, in Galleria Borghese. The Splendid Collection of a Noble Family, catalogo della mostra (Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art, 2009; Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, 2010), a cura di C.M. Strinati, A. Mastroianni, F. Papi, Kyoto 2009, p. 148, n. 37.
  • S. Biancani, in Le Signore dell'Arte. Storie di donne tra '500 e '600, catalogo della mostra (Milano, Palazzo Reale, 2021), a cura di A. Bava, G. Mori, A. Tapié, Milano 2021, p. 301, n. 3.11.