Featured Acquisition: “Madonna che allatta il Bambino”


Guido Reni, attr. (1575-1642)
Madonna che allatta il Bambino 
(Nursing Madonna and Child with an Angel) 
c. 1609 
Oil on canvas
22 x 25 inches
31 x 34.4 inches framed

Private collection, NJ
Private collection, Stamford, CT
Private collection, Washington, DC
Some time in 1702, Pope Clement XI asked the painter Giuseppe Ghezzi to organize an exhibition of select paintings in the galleries of the Vatican Palace on the occasion of a programmed (but never occurred) visit of the King of Spain, Philip V. Since 1676, Ghezzi had been in charge of selecting paintings for display in San Salvatore in Lauro, Rome, an annual event that had met with increasing success over the years; therefore, Ghezzi’s knowledge of the Roman collections was impressive. In considering which works would be most suitable for honoring Philip V, Ghezzi singled out, among others, a painting belonging to the Falconieri family: “the unique, beautiful nursing Madonna” by Guido Reni. Already in 1696, Ghezzi had put on display in San Salvatore the “Madonna, round, by Guido Reni, famous, with the most beautiful frame,” then in the possession of Paolo Falconieri. Despite its previous  renown, Guido’s Nursing Madonna is now literally unknown. Its rediscovery in a  private collection enables us to understand the fascination it aroused in the  seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

The first mention of the painting dates to 1655, when it is described as a “Madonna nursing the Child by Guido Reni, with a carved and gilded frame, in a  gilded box, with a covering of red taffeta, polished” in the Roman house of Monsignor Francesco Falconieri. In his Nata delli musei (1664), Giovan Pietro Bellori succinctly records in the same place “paintings by excellent masters, and among them, a Madonna with Child and an angel who adores him by Guido Reni, in an oval.” In 1674, upon the death of Francesco, his brother Paolo must have inherited Guido’s work, which is indeed quoted in the inventory of his paintings (drawn up in 1707) as “a Madonna with Child, suckling, with and angel resting his hands on his chest, oval, with a carved frame with two gilded heads, by Guido Reni.” 

The painting, with its sumptuously sculpted frame, was deemed so precious that Falconieri declared it inalienable in his testament. Guido’s Nursing Madonna and Child with an Angel remained with the Falconieri family until the end of the eighteenth century. In the sale catalogue of the auction of 1 May 1821 at Christie’s, London, the work appears as “the Virgin with the Infant at the breast, and an angel looking on, oval. This pure and very graceful specimen is from the Falconieri Palace, where it was suspended over the bed of the Donna Julia Falconieri.” This is the last unquestionable mention of the painting before it disappeared.

Owing to its fame, Guido’s Madonna and Child with an Angel was reproduced twice in print. In a relatively faithful engraving by François Andriot, the composition is not only reversed, but also amplified all around its perimeter. Dissatisfied with the accentuated close-up of the scene, Andriot added a cozy domestic setting and some supernatural props: in the foreground, an untidy cradle; in the background, a rudimentary window opening onto a summarily evoked landscape; and above, sun rays piercing the clouds and pouring over the Virgin and Child. Although Andriot’s print was produced in Paris, the caption clearly indicates that the painting was in Rome. 

Because Andriot contributed to the set of prints illustrating Bellori’s Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni (published in Rome in 1672), it is possible that he drew the composition around that time. In 1710-1720, the painter Giovanni Agostino Ratti reproduced Guido’s painting in a lively etching, which preserves its original close-up format (though reversed), while interpreting the physiognomy of the figures with manifest freedom. 

Born in 1618, Monsignor Falconieri is most unlikely to have commissioned the painting from Guido. Nor is it plausible that Francesco’s uncle, Cardinal Lelio Falconieri, who bequeathed his collection of paintings to his nephew, was Guido’s patron.10 The Nursing Madonna and Child with an Angel was undoubtedly executed in 1609-1610, when Guido was working at the service of Pope Paul V, first in the Vatican Palace (1608-1609), then in the Quirinal Palace (1610-1612).11 In the absence of the relevant documentation, the identity of its initial owner must remain unknown.

It is perhaps difficult to grasp the manifold innovations introduced by Guido in this relatively simple work. First and foremost, its elliptical format was extremely rare at the time for an image destined for private devotion. Although Guido was bound to employ ovals in multiple compositions, all the surviving paintings of such format were certainly produced later. Furthermore, Guido here exploits the curvilinear silhouette of the canvas in order to naturally enhance the ingenious stereography of the Virgin’s quasi-frontal torso enfolding the swaddled body of the suckling Child. By plunging the adoring angel to the left into penumbra, the compact close-up of the Virgin and Child detaches itself strongly from the compressed dark background. In spite of the tension exerted by the oval format onto the figures circumscribed within it, the scene exudes quietude and intimacy. This paradoxical impression must not lead us to overlook the intelligence with which Guido here adapts compositional elements developed by Caravaggio in his work of the late 1590s: the close-up view format and its dynamic interplay with the frame. Even before Battistello Caracciolo, Cecco de! Caravaggio, or Bartolomeo Manfredi turned the dichotomy and interaction between foreground figures and the margins of the composition into the trademark of a post-Caravaggio vanguard, Guido had succeeded in nimbly profiting from Caravaggio’s novelty while steering it toward a completely opposite direction.   

Indeed, in his Nursing Madonna Guido softens the lifelikeness of the natural model (still present in his poignant depiction of the newborn) through geometric abstraction (the feline oval of the Virgin’s face) and a moderate pittoresco brushwork (the swiftly sketched-out figure of the angel). These aspects reveal if not the influence of, then a certain attention to, the late mannerist poetics of the Cavalier d’ Arpino. As suggested earlier, Guido must have executed his Nursing Madonna during the very years Arpino, through his strong ties to the Borghese family, was supporting him. The geisha-like typology of the Virgin’s face (with elongated, semi-closed eyes set into elliptical pools of shade, thin nose, and pursed tiny lips) can be found, for instance, in Guido’s Pentecost (Sala delle Dame, Vatican Palace) or in the Virgin Sewing in the Temple (Annunciation Chapel, Quirinal Palace). The almost impromptu, three­quarters profile of the angel, with a slight asymmetry in the position of the eyes, is also discernable in the Samson Killing the Philistines (Sala delle Nozze Aldobrandini, Vatican Palace) and again in the Virgin Sewing in the Temple. Interestingly enough, the traits of the infant with wide, narrow sockets almost impinged upon by chubby cheeks reoccurs at different times in Guido’s output: for instance, in the frescoed Putti originally decorating the Dall’ Arm i Chapel in Santa Maria dei Servi, Bologna ( c. 1612) and in the frescoed Sleeping Putto now in Palazzo Barberini, Rome (1627).  

In comparing the Nursing Madonna with works executed by Guido in 1609- 1610, it is regrettable that the state of preservation of the latter does not always allow for a clear perception of Guido’s great technical ability. Most fortunately, the Nursing Madonna, though on canvas, betrays the skills of Guido the frescoist, in particular in the ‘freshness’ and almost extemporaneous handling of the angel’s figure. And even in terms of color, the Nursing Madonna, with the simplicity of its sky blue, ruby, and emerald green tones presents the same chromatic characteristics of Guido’s frescoes, especially those in the Annunciation Chapel at the Quirinal Palace.  

Much of the importance of the Nursing Madonna lies in the ways it proposes or anticipates pictorial solutions elaborated upon by Guido only subsequently. The idea of tinting the breast of the Virgin with green undertones conveys the impression of subsiding blood as a consequence of nursing. Guido accentuated a similar effect in his Charity (c. 1630) now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The scheme of the leaning Madonna, eyes half-closed, while suckling the Child, is redeveloped by Guido in both· his untraced Tanari Madonna (reproduced in print by Mauro Gandolfi) and his Madonna with Child (c. 1626-1627) in the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, in which the foreshortening of the Virgin’s right hand resembles that of the same hand in the Nursing Madonna

Perhaps, to fully understand the extent of the novelty inherent in the Nursing Madonna, it is opportune to reflect on the ideal of beauty that Guido would reformulate decades later in the Virgin of his famous Pallione de! Voto (1630), now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna. In a small canvas now in the M. K. Ciurlionis National Museum of Art, Kaunas, Guido depicted the detail of the Virgin’s face from the Pallione. Almost twenty years after executing his Nursing Madonna, Guido recreated here an ideal of divine beauty based on a notion of grace inspired by, but also independent from Parmigianino. The elongated oval of the face, the lithe and flexible neck, the majestic thin nose, and the large, semi-closed eyes covered by ample eyelids repropose (with a few differences) the geisha-like typology of the Nursing Madonna, though the proportions of the face now obey the lesson of the ancient Niobe so very often employed by Guido as a paradigm of female beauty. 

In his Felsina pittrice (1678), Malvasia describes exactly what we have been observing thus far: “from Parmigianino [Guido] took grace, observing the heads of his Madonnas with their half-closed eyes, rather too large, a feature Guido enhanced so that they might then acquire such a noble and modest air, to which a rather long nose and small mouth greatly add.” In his early Nursing Madonna, Guido provocatively deviates from his previous, though intense, adherence to Caravaggio’s naturalism by exploring a model of abstract beauty and supernatural grace rooted in the Italian pictorial tradition, but developed by him over the years (with variations) as the trademark of his ‘divine manner.’ 

– Dr. Lorenzo Pericolo
University of Warwick
Coventry, England