Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist

Perino del Vaga (Pietro Buonaccorsi) (Italian, Florence 1501–1547 Rome)
ca. 1524–26
Oil on wood
34 3/4 x 25 5/8 in. (88.3 x 65.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Acquisitions Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Fisch, Denise and Andrew Saul, and Friends of European Paintings Gifts, Gwynne Andrews Fund, Mr. and Mrs. J. Tomilson Hill, Jon and Barbara Landau, Charles and Jessie Price, Hester Diamond, and Fern and George Wachter Gifts, 2011

Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 609
Florentine by birth, Perino del Vaga was trained in Raphael's workshop in Rome, where he soon became one of the most inventive artists of his generation. This is a rare early work and dates from the mid-1520s. The young Christ holds the traditional symbols of a goldfinch (symbolic of the Resurrection) and a cherry (signifying the delights of the blessed). More unusually, the young Saint John is crowned with grape leaves and wears a leopard skin, usually associated with the ancient god Bacchus. This mingling of pagan and Christian iconography reflects ideas prevalent in Florentine intellectual circles that attempted to reconcile classical wisdom with Christianity.
This Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist was unknown prior to its sale in Genoa, Italy in 2009 and was first published in full in 2011 (Wolk-Simon, Gallagher). It is a relatively early work by Perino del Vaga and seems to date from the mid-1520s, when the artist worked for the papal court and members of the Curial elite, rising to become the leading mural painter in the competitive Roman art world. It is closest in date to Perino’s fresco of the Pietà in S. Stefano del Cacco, Rome (ca. 1524–26; see Additional Images, fig. 1), where the Virgin wears a similar traditional mantle and the figure holding the nails behind the group (Nicodemus?), shares Joseph’s somewhat ambiguous and haunting character. A private devotional image, it is an exceedingly rare example of this aspect of the artist’s activity, which principally involved designing and executing frescoes, stucco reliefs, tapestries, and decorative objects, as well as the occasional altarpiece. Only five or six such compositions of this type by him are known today; that closest in date may be the unfinished Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist now in the Courtauld Gallery, London.

Together with Parmigianino, Pontormo, and Rosso Fiorentino, Perino del Vaga is one of the foremost exponents of Italian Mannerism. A member of Raphael’s workshop and later court artist to Admiral-Prince Andrea Doria in Genoa and then to Pope Paul III Farnese, he was the single most influential painter and draftsman in Rome in the decades following Raphael’s death in 1520; his formulation of a graceful, elegant, and refined idiom—an artistic style that fluidly synthesized elements of the art of Raphael, Michelangelo, and the antique—became the paradigm emulated by generations of painters in the Eternal City (many of whom were members of his workshop in the 1540s).

On the shoulder of the Virgin is a gold star, indicating the Virgin’s status as the stella maris (star of the sea), a title emphasizing Mary’s role as a guiding star for Christians. The goldfinch held by the Christ Child is a common symbol for his passion, while the cherry he takes from his mother refers to the Fall of Man, brought about by the forbidden fruit, a sin to be redeemed by Christ’s death. The young Saint John the Baptist wears a crown of vine leaves and a leopard-skin robe, attributes of Bacchus. This conflation of the two figures was current in early sixteenth-century Florence, where Bacchus was understood as a precursor to the Baptist (see S. J. Freedberg, "A Recovered Work of Andrea del Sarto with some Notes on a Leonardesque Connection," Burlington Magazine 124 [May 1982], pp. 281–88; and Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, "Andrea del Sarto's 'St. John the Baptist'," Burlington Magazine 125 [March 1983], p. 162). Because this iconography is particular to Florence, it is likely that Perino’s patron was a Florentine living in Rome.

The early history of the painting is unknown, but it may be the "quadro di un Madonna con Christarello et San Giovanni et San Giuseppe in tavola mano di Pierino del Vaga con cornice tutta indorata," listed in the 1624 inventory of Costanzo Patrizi in Rome (published in Anna Maria Pedrocchi, Le stanze del tesoriere, Milan, [2000], p. 389). It was sold in 2009 from the Palazzo Ricci Petrocchini in the town of Pollenza, outside Macerata (Marches), built by the Counter-Reformation prelate Cardinal Gregorio Petrocchini da Montelparo (1537–1612). This was a historical collection of some significance, but it is not known when the Holy Family entered their possession.

[Andrea Bayer 2011]
At the time of its acquisition, and despite its evident quality, Perino del Vaga’s Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist was severely affected by a thick layer of oxidized, discolored varnish, surface grime, and nicotine (see Additional Images, fig. 2). These coatings swamped the rich coloring of the painting and undermined its subtle tonal transitions. More seriously, the Virgin’s aqua-blue veil had been entirely overpainted at a later date by another hand. This overpaint comprised a mixture of the blue pigments azurite and smalt, which suggests that the aim was to impose a more traditional coloring in this area of the composition. However, over the years the overpaint had discolored to the point of becoming dark and formless. It had been crudely painted up to and around the fine filigree lines of gold that describe the stella maris and decorative edges of the veil.

To help clarify the condition of the original painting beneath the obscuring layer of overpaint, an x-radiograph (see Additional Images, fig. 3) was made, revealing an intact and elaborate set of folds in the Virgin’s drapery. The dark horizontal lines visible in the x-radiograph indicate where channels were cut into the reverse of the wood panel during its construction, which allowed for tapered cross-battens to be slid in, helping to stabilize the support.

Photographs taken while the discolored varnish and overpaint were in the process of being removed show some minor losses, scratches, and stains, but overall, the condition of the original is exceptionally good (see Additional Images, fig. 4). The old varnish is still in place over the hand of the Virgin and the lower portion of the Christ Child, obscuring the modeling and rosy coloring of the flesh tones. A large part of the overpaint has already been removed from the Virgin’s drapery—a slow process that has been accomplished mostly with a scalpel used under high magnification. Even at this early stage, the impact of the removal is clear: the head of the Infant Baptist is thrown into relief, and the powerfully expressive role of light and shadow in the construction of the composition is revealed.

The surface of the thick poplar panel that serves as the painting’s support was prepared with a traditional gesso ground (calcium sulphate bound in animal glue). The artist made very few changes to the composition during the course of execution, adjusting only the contour of the Christ Child’s head and leg. This strongly suggests the use of a full-size preparatory drawing, which would have been transferred to the prepared panel before painting. Such transfers were usually achieved by painstakingly pricking the lines of the drawing and then pressing or brushing a medium through the holes, leaving a dotted outline of the design on the surface to be painted. This method of transfer, a process known as pouncing, was typical in Raphael’s workshop and frequently adopted by his assistants. Pouncing marks made with a carbon-based medium such as charcoal can be imaged using infrared reflectography, but no such marks were uncovered in the Holy Family. Nevertheless, lines of tiny losses (revealing a dark underlayer) indicate that pouncing was indeed used to transfer a preexisting design (see Additional Images, fig. 5). The material employed was not carbon-based and appears to have caused the overlying paint to splinter away—an interesting and unusual phenomenon.
[Michael Gallagher 2011]
?Solderio Patrizi, Rome (until d. 1614; inv., 1614); ?his son, Costanzo Patrizi, Rome (until d. 1624; inv., 1624); ?Mariano Patrizi, Rome (until d. 1654; inv., 1654); Fabio Failla, Rome (until d. 1987); Palazzo Ricci Petrocchini, Pollenza (Macerata) (until 2009; Palazzo Ricci Petrocchini sale, Wannenes Art Auctions, Genoa, November 16, 2009, no. 400, as by a Mannerist painter, active ca. mid-16th century, for €200,000); private collection (until 2011; sale, Sotheby's, New York, January 27, 2011, no. 113, as by Perino del Vaga, to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Perino del Vaga in New York Collections," September 27, 2011–February 5, 2012, no catalogue.

Frankfurt. Städel Museum. "Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence," February 24–June 5, 2016, no. 40.

Inventario dei quadri di Solderio Patrizi. 1614 [A.S.C., Archivio Urbano, Sez. V, prot. 1, cc. 936r–938v; published in Anna Maria Pedrocchi, "Le stanze del tesoriere," Milan, (2000), p. 386; Getty no. I-3682], as "Un quadro d'una Madonna con S. Giuseppe e con un Cristarello con cornice dorata," without attribution, possibly this work.

Inventory of Costanzo Patrizi. February 27, 1624 [Archivio di Stato di Roma, 30 Not. Cap., 1624, uff. 2, vol. 92, c. 390; published in Luigi Spezzaferro, "Ferrara-Roma, 1598–1621: un rapporto di indirette incidenze," in "Frescobaldi e il suo tempo," Venice, 1983, pp. 125–28; Getty no. I-2279], as "Un quadro di una Madonna con Christarello e San Giovanni, e San Giuseppe in tavola di mano di Pierino del Vago con cornicione tutta indorata scudi cento venti 120," possibly this picture [A second copy of Costanzo Patrizi's inventory of 1624 is in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (Archivio Patrizi Montoro, B 77, cc. 95v–105v [this picture, c. 105r]; published in Anna Maria Pedrocchi, "Le stanze del tesoriere," Milan, [2000], p. 389).] .

Inventario dei quadri di Mariano Patrizi. May 9, 1654, c. 50r [Archivio di Stato di Roma, 30 Notai Capitolini, Ufficio 10, not. Lucas Michelangelus, vol. 212, cc. 32r–78r; published in Anna Maria Pedrocchi, "Le stanze del tesoriere," Milan, (2000), p. 390; Getty no. I-3368], as "Un quadro in tavola di una Madonna Cristarello, San Giovanni e S. Giuseppe con cornice tocca d'oro," without attribution, possibly this picture.

Linda Wolk-Simon. "A New Painting by Perino del Vaga for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York." Burlington Magazine 153 (October 2011), pp. 644–49, fig. 1 (color), dates it to the mid-1520s by comparison with other works by Perino from that period; finds that it is inspired by various Florentine sources, especially the figure of Saint John the Baptist depicted with the attributes of Bacchus (a crown of vine leaves and a leopard-skin robe), "a distinctly Florentine iconographic convention current in the early decades of the sixteenth century," and suggests that the picture may have been painted for a Florentine patron.

Michael Gallagher. "A New Painting by Perino del Vaga: Recent Cleaning and Technical Observations." Burlington Magazine 153 (October 2011), pp. 650–52, figs. 10 (color, before treatment), 11 (color, during cleaning), 12 (x-radiograph), 13 (infrared reflectogram, color, and x-radiograph details), discusses the removal of the blue overpaint on the Madonna's mantle to reveal the original aqua color; notes that x-radiography and infrared reflectography show that Perino made almost no changes to the composition during the course of painting; states that technical analysis also detected tiny paint losses—related to the use of a pricked cartoon—that do not go all the way down to the gesso layer but only to what seems to be a layer of monochrome undermodelling, making it difficult to explain the artist's working method.

Andrea J. Bayer in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2010–2012." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Fall 2012), p. 25, ill. (color).

Tom Henry in Late Raphael. Ed. Tom Henry and Paul Joannides. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, 2012, p. 220, under no. 55, states that the composition is a response to a painting from the school of Raphael, here tentatively attributed to Gianfrancesco Penni, of "The Holy Family with a Book" (Palazzo Pitti, Florence).

Linda Wolk-Simon in Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence. Ed. Bastian Eclercy. Exh. cat., Städel Museum, Frankfurt. Munich, 2016, p. 120, no. 40, ill. pp. 114, 121 (color, overall and detail).

Andrea Bayer. "Giuliano Bugiardini: A Master of Theme and Variation." A Golden Age of European Art: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Ed. James Clifton and Melina Kervandjian. Houston, 2016, p. 78.

A painting of this same subject attributed to the Circle of Perino del Vaga was sold at Christie's, London, April 30, 2015, no. 479 (oil on wood, 36 1/2 x 25 5/8 in.).
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