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The Virgin and Child

Vivarini Bartolomeo

(Venice c. 1432 - c.1499)

The painting came into the collection in relatively recent times; it was in fact purchased by the Italian State in 1909, from the suppressed Congregazione di Carità of Forlì. The panel, initially attributed to the school of Bartolomeo Vivarini, was later unanimously assigned directly to the artist, although this attribution is partly compromised by conservation-related issues over the course of its history; it has been dated to the mature phase of the artist’s oeuvre.

Object details

c. 1475-1480
tempera on panel
cm 65x41

Forlì, Congregazione di Carità, year uncertain; Roma, Galleria Borghese (purchased 1909).

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1909- 1910 Giovanni Zennaro
  • 1996-1998 Carlo Ceccotti (frame)


The figure of the enthroned Virgin takes up almost the entire surface of the panel. Mary wears a red robe with close-fitting sleeves buttoned at the wrist, pulled tight under her breast to form narrow ruffled folds that open onto her stomach, emphasising its roundness; over the robe she wears a voluminous blue cloak lined with pink and edged with gold thread, which also covers her head. The face is almost frontal, the eyes lowered. She holds the standing Child on her right knee, covered by a thin white cloth that descends from his left shoulder; Jesus is holding his right hand with open fingers to his face, near his mouth. The two figures have narrow haloes around their heads.

The square marble seat of the throne is visible, the sides bordered with listels, fitted at the top and bottom with a moulded frame and resting on a wide dais, lobed at the front; the backrest is entirely concealed by a brown damask curtain with floral and pinecone motifs. There is a landscape in the background, with a stream, hills and patches of vegetation; the sky is furrowed by small, round clouds.

The painting was purchased in 1909 from the Congregazione di Carità of Forlì. The Congregation, established by a decree of the Napoleonic government in 1807, grouped together various charitable institutes; suppressed in 1816, it was re-established in 1862, to provide items for the poor and undertake good works. Merged into the Ente Comunale Assistenza in 1937, it was definitively suppressed in 1977. Vivarini’s panel probably came to the Congregation through one of the bequests or inheritances that the Congregation received, to be used for charitable purposes. It cannot be ruled out, however, that some information may still emerge from the surviving papers of the archives, partly destroyed by fire in the mid-20th century, kept in the Forlì-Cesena State Archives. The panel, full-length but small-scale, was probably intended for private devotion; its origins must therefore be sought in the history of family collecting.

At the beginning of November 1909, Giulio Cantalamessa, Director of the Borghese Gallery, wrote to Gino Fogolari, Director of the Royal Galleries of Venice at the time, to have the artwork, which had just arrived in the Gallery, restored by the most experienced Venetian craftsmen. He sent the panel to Fogolari asking him to entrust it to Giovanni Zennaro, a painter and restorer with whose skills he was already acquainted. The painting was in poor condition: scratched, dirty and with oxidation that blackened in particular the green curtain and the blue of the mantle. The restoration returned it to a good state of legibility, with minimal intervention, reintegrating the small plastered-over areas where the imprimatura had fallen off, aiming to respect the work’s original qualities. The result of the operation, however, did not meet the expectations of the Gallery’s Director, who confirmed its attribution to the school of Bartolomeo Vivarini.

The panel was subsequently listed under Bartholomew’s name in Berenson’s book (1936, p. 208). This attribution was repeated in the catalogues of the collection, starting with the 1937 edition of De Rinaldis’ guide, which considers the work to have been executed by the artist ‘in the later stages of his career (1475-1480), with an evident softening in the usual harshness of his style. It is almost a ruin, but in a perfect condition of genuineness, without retouches; and the subtle abrasions in the faces of the two figures seem to add a touch of pictorial sweetness to the hard glazes of this Murano painter’ (De Rinaldis 1937, p. 56).

A later date, around 1485, was suggested by Pallucchini, who in 1962 devoted a comprehensive study to the three Murano painters, brothers Antonio and Bartolomeo and Antonio’s son Alvise. Subsequent catalogues, which confirmed Vivarini’s authorship, put forward a broader timeframe, the second half of the 15th century – at any rate after the contacts Antonio, the painter’s brother and master, had with Andrea Mantegna in Padua, in the Ovetari chapel (Moreno, Stefani 2000, p. 274, no. 4; Herrmann Fiore 2006, p. 183), contacts that were to mark Bartolomeo’s artistic language profoundly.

A Mantegna-like sculptural quality characterises the artist’s mature style, in which references to Paduan artists and Squarcione are accompanied by a knowledge of the works of Donatello and Andrea del Castagno, who had some works on display in Venice. The prominence of the volumes, defined by the intense, rough brushwork, is combined with the enamelled, almost glassy tone of the luminous and bright colours, suggesting a connection with the activity of the Murano painters of the time in the production of stained glass; a style that was to be totally at odds with the new chromatic and luminous fusion between figure and landscape sought by Giovanni Bellini (Pallucchini 1962, pp. 37-54; Cavalli 2016, pp. 110-116; Pilo 2016, p. 131; Müller 2023, pp. 44-47). In this regard, the words of his biographer Carlo Ridolfi are significant: ‘Bartolomeo was the fourth Painter of the Vivarini, and the best of them all, since with the examples of things seen, and for having lived a long time, (though he did not know how to depart from his old-style manner) he did some good Painting’ (Ridolfi 1648, part one, p. 21).

For the Borghese panel, a dating to the second half of the eighth decade of the 15th century would seem appropriate – a particularly fertile phase of Bartolomeo’s production (Romanelli 2016, p. 34). In the painting, Mantegna’s influence on Vivarini is evident in the uneven folds of the drapery and especially in the sculptural volumetry of the figures. The volume is built up using the plastic force of the subtly drawn line, while the brightness and purity of the colours, much undermined by the state of preservation of the painted surface, can still be appreciated in the Virgin’s red robe, with the transition between the coloured shading of the folds and the almost bleached colour of the highlighted parts. The ductus of the fine brushstrokes with which the paint is applied, following the traces of the drawing, can still be seen.

The broad frontal figure of the Virgin, the full oval face with its slightly melancholic expression and the lowered eyes with the oblique gaze, might be compared to the Madonna in the triptych of the Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy) in Santa Maria Formosa, Venice (1475). Another similarity is in the drapery of the robe and in the arrangement of the mantle on the head, similarly laced at the neckline, thus covering the shoulders with more drawn and less abundant folds. The wide frontal arrangement is also repeated in the Seattle Virgin and Child (Seattle Art Museum, Kress Collection, inv. 61.175), and has affinities with the Polyptych of the School of Tagliapietra (1477, Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia, inv. 825) or the Triptych in San Giovanni in Bragora in Venice (1478), using a formula that was to be repeated, with variations, in the following decade. The standing Child is very similar in position to the one in the altarpiece of San Nicola di Bari (1476), similarly held by the Virgin’s tapering hand, although in our painting he puts his right hand to his mouth in a childlike manner – nothing new in Bartolomeo – with a sentimental hint of a conversation between Mother and Son (Pilo 1999, pp.30-32). The landscape on either side of the curtain, the blue sky that fades to almost white on the horizon and the small, rounded cumulus clouds are very close to those of the Madonna and Child in the National Gallery of Art in Washington (c. 1475, Kress Collection, inv. 1939.1.118).

Simona Ciofetta

  • C. Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte, ovvero le vite degli illustri pittori Veneti, e dello stato, 2 tomi, Venezia, Gio. Battista Sgava, 1648
  • B. Berenson, Pitture italiane del Rinascimento, Milano, Ulrico Hoepli Editore, 1936
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma, Libreria dello Stato, 1937
  • P. Della Pergola, Galleria Borghese. I dipinti, 2 voll., Roma, Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Libreria dello Stato, 1955-1959, I, 1955
  • R. Pallucchini, I Vivarini (Antonio, Bartolomeo, Alvise), Venezia, Pozza, 1962
  • G.M. Pilo, Bartolomeo Vivarini e la via gotica all’umanesimo, in Pittura veneziana dal Quattrocento al Settecento, a cura di Giuseppe Maria Pilo, Venezia, Arsenale Editrice, 1999, pp. 30-32
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano, Touring Club Italiano, 2000
  • Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, Galleria Borghese, a cura di Kristina Herrmann Fiore, Sesto Ulteriano (San Giuliano Milanese), La Neograf, 2006
  • C. Cavalli, I Vivarini, una famiglia di artisti nella Venezia del Quattrocento, in I Vivarini, lo splendore della pittura tra Gotico e Rinascimento, cataogo della mostra (Conegliano, Palazzo Sarcinelli, 20 febbraio-5 giugno 2016), Venezia, Marsilio 2016, pp. 103-129
  • G.M. Pilo, L’altro Rinascimento veneto: i Vivarini, la dinastia e la scuola "di Murano", «Arte documento», 32, 2016, pp. 126-135
  • G. Romanelli, I Vivarini, Firenze, Giunti, 2016 (Art e dossier, Dossier n. 330, marzo 2016)
  • R. Müller, Die Vivarini. Bildproduktion in Venedig 1440 bis 1505, Regensburg, Schnell & Steiner, 2023