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Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626)

Madonna di Pistoia 1621-23

Oil on canvas | 172.3 x 132.4 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 405559

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  • In 1336 a girl in hospital in Pistoia, near Florence, saw the Virgin Mary in a dream and was miraculously cured. Her vision was painted soon afterwards in a fresco in the church of the Madonna delle Grazie in Pistoia. In 1621 Ferdinando Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua commissioned this depiction of the same subject which consciously follows the design of the earlier fresco.

    While working in Florence for the Medici, Fontebuoni also enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Mantua, Ferdinando Gonzaga. Fontebuoni may have met Gonzaga in Rome between 1610 and 1612 and the Duke seems to have developed a particular interest in his work. On 28 September 1621 the Mantuan agent Filippo Berardi, wrote to Ferdinando Gonzaga to inform him that Fontebuoni had returned from Pistoia, and by October of the same year he sent news confirming that the artist was working in his service. In November of 1622, Berardi informed Gonzaga that the picture he had requested from Fontebuoni of the ‘Madonna di Pistoia’ was almost complete but that Fontebuoni was slow in completing the other painting he was working on for the Duke. By February of 1623, Fontebuoni had finished the ‘Madonna’ and Berardi promised Gonzaga he would send it shortly. It must have arrived safely in Mantua, as ‘a painting of the Madonna with a baby in her arms on clouds supported by angels, a Florentine work’ is recorded in the Gonzaga inventory of 18 January 1627, where it is valued at 120 lire. It was probably among the paintings bought by Charles I in the same year.

    The wife of Charles I, Henrietta Maria, had a number of Italian paintings hung in her chapel in Somerset House. Some were gifts from Charles I; others she acquired through the assistance of the papal agents George Con and Gregorio Panzani. It seems highly likely that this large devotional image by Fontebuoni was among the paintings intended for the Catholic Queen’s chapel, since in 1649 it was recorded by the Trustees of the Commonwealth Sale as being held in Somerset House.

    The painting represents the Virgin kneeling upon a cloud and surrounded by angels at her feet. She is holding the Christ Child, wrapped in red and white drapery in her arms. The strong directional gazes of the Madonna, Christ and the angel in the lower left-hand corner suggest that this work was intended for a particular location, perhaps high up on the right hand side of an altar. Furthermore, the composition of the painting and the foreshortening of the figures seem to indicate that the work was intended to be viewed from below. Levey has suggested that the painting was cut down from a larger work, perhaps depicting the Virgin and Child appearing to a saint. For such a composition to work, the figures in this painting would have occupied the top right corner, in which case the left-hand and bottom edges of this canvas would have been cut. However, technical examination reveals that the left edge here is unquestionably original.

    However unusual, the composition of the painting is appropriate to the subject it represents: the miraculous vision of the Madonna di Pistoia who appeared to a local girl in 1336. While the girl was ill and lying in a hospital bed, the Virgin Mary came to her in a dream, holding the Christ Child in her arms. The event was subsequently painted in fresco by the Pistoian painter known as the Master of 1336. When the hospital where the vision occurred was later renovated and the church of the Madonna delle Grazie o del Letto was built to honour the miracle in the fifteenth century, the fourteenth-century fresco was removed and placed on the high altar. This painting has many similarities to the later seventeenth-century version of the same subject, in the curious red and white coloured swaddling clothes of the Child and the strong sense of movement created by the flowing drapery. The notional viewpoint of the young girl looking up from her bed and seeing the Madonna before her is recreated by Fontebuoni in the present painting: the diagonal composition and the strong downward gazes of the Madonna and angels engage the beholder and create the sense of a vision appearing before us.

    The style and technique of this work seem to confirm the attribution to Fontebuoni. The composition of the painting based on strong diagonals to represent monumental figures against a shallow background is typical of the artist’s work, as is the use of flowing drapery carefully rendered through tonal contrasts of light and dark. In his Vision of San Bernardo (Cassa di Risparmio e Depositi, Prato) of 1621 Fontebuoni represented a similar compositional group, including the Madonna kneeling upon a cloud surrounded with angels. The strong directional gesture of the angel in the lower left-hand corner closely resembles that of that Angel Gabriel in Fontebuoni’s Annunciation (Santa Lucia in Selci, Rome). The Madonna di Pistoia is typical of Fontebuoni’s mature style, following his return to Florence from Rome, a period when he moved towards a purity of form particularly well suited to devotional images.

    In 1818 the painting was recorded at Kensington Palace and attributed to Orazio Gentileschi. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1946 it was suggested the work might be by a Spanish or Neapolitan artist. In 1962 Michael Levey first linked this painting to the inventory of the Commonwealth sale, with its attribution to Baglione. However, he revised this attribution in the second edition of his Royal Collection catalogue, published in 1991, and concluded that the artist could not be securely determined. In 1974, Fiorella Sricchia Santoro first proposed the attribution to Fontebuoni, which has been widely accepted.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007


    In the collection of Charles I; possibly a papal gift to Queen Henrietta Maria; valued by the Trustees for Sale at Somerset House, 1649 and sold to Edward Bass and others on 19 December 1651 (no 350); recovered at the Restoration and listed in Queen Henrietta Maria's Bedchamber at Colombes in 1669; it first appears back in England in Queen Caroline's Dressing Room at Kensington Palace in 1818 (no 497)

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    172.3 x 132.4 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    185.9 x 147.0 x 8.5 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    The Virgin and Child with angels

    Virgin and child in clouds