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Benvenuto di Pietro Tisi, called Garofalo (1476-Ferrara 1559)

The Holy Family May 1533

Oil on panel | 42.5 x 55.4 x 1.7 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 406923

King's Dressing Room, Windsor Castle

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  • The gesture of St Anne, the Virgin’s mother, links the written word, being read by the Virgin, with its embodiment, the Christ Child. The wounds on Christ’s hands and feet foretell his Passion on the Cross, and the stone beneath his foot refers to his future tomb.

    The veiled old woman in this painting is probably St Anne (the Virgin’s mother). It is unlikely to be St Elizabeth (although elsewhere Garofalo painted her in this costume) because of the absence of her son, John the Baptist. St Anne’s gesture links the written word being read by the Virgin with its embodiment, the Christ Child, who unusually bears the marks of the Cross on his hands and feet, and has one foot on a stone slab. The wounds clearly foretell Christ’s Passion on the Cross; the stone refers to the stone of his future tomb. Unusually, this painting bears an inscription on the back: this was finished on 2 May 1533, which appears to have been written at the time and is certainly consistent with the apparent date of the painting.

    The remarkable preservation of the brilliant, jewel-like colours in this painting is a testament to Garofalo’s careful preparation and skilful technique. The use of rich glazes over subtly modulated opaque paint layers gives depth and saturation of colour. Like Mazzolino and Costa, Garofalo often used shell or powdered gold to decorate details: surviving touches of gold around the head of the Virgin suggest that originally each figure had a golden halo. Also typical of Garofalo’s Ferrarese training is the almost miniaturist detail of the folds of the cloth, the serrated edge of the Virgin’s blue mantle and in the depiction of relief decoration on the cradle.

    The horizontal format, architectural setting and airy landscape are typical of Garofalo’s work of this date. The brilliant yellow and green of the sunlit foliage stand out against the snow-capped mountains, which dissolve into the blue of the sky. This colour combination and the deft free touches of the brush betray the influence of Dosso Dossi’s virtuoso painting technique. Both artists must have learned from the precise and fantastical landscapes of German artists such as Cranach, Altdorfer, and Huber.

    Garofalo also shows an awareness of the Roman style of painting, which was beginning to be imported into the northern Italian courts at this date. Garofalo visited Rome in 1512, where he came into contact with Raphael and studied the antique. The Doric columns on the right echo some ancient fragments found near the Quirinal Hill in Rome. The baluster on the Virgin’s reading desk is similar to the decoration of the throne of 'Jupiter', a Roman statue then visible in Rome and now housed in the Museo Nazionale, Naples. The ‘antique-style’ cradle reveals Garofalo’s awareness of Raphael’s work, in particular a group of paintings of the Holy Family around a rocking cradle designed by Raphael in c. 1518-19 and executed by his assistants, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni. A crucial work in this respect is the 'Madonna della Gatta' (Madonna with the Cat), thought to be by Giulio Romano and datable to the early 1520s, which was described by Vasari as being in the Gonzaga collection in nearby Mantua. In 1524 Giulio himself arrived in Mantua from Rome. Many elements here show Garofalo responding to his rival’s style: the dark architectural setting before which the figures are caught in sharp chiaroscuro; the sturdy figure of Christ; the sculptural folds; and the contrast between the ideal, classical features of the Virgin and the older face of her mother.

    Unlike many Ferrarese Renaissance paintings, this work has consistently retained its attribution in the Royal Collection, though its popularity during the eighteenth century may have had been based on its availablity as a substitute for an early Raphael.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007 and The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760, London, 2014.

    Noted by Vertue, 1749, in the collection of Frederick, Prince of Wales

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on panel


    42.5 x 55.4 x 1.7 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    41.5 x 55.4 cm (support (etc), excluding additions)

    65.6 x 78.6 x 7.5 cm (frame, external)