Madonna Montalto (c.1600)

Carracci, Annibale (1560-1609)

Madonna Montalto (The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist)
Oil on copper, 35 x 27.5 cm
National GalleryLondon

Domesticity reigns in this exquisite little picture. A delightfully pretty Virgin Mary balances a squirming, curly-haired Christ Child on her knee. She herself is perched rather precariously on a laundry basket, and her nephew, the young Saint John the Baptist dressed in an animal skin, tugs at her blue mantle. On the other side the elderly Saint Joseph has taken off his glasses to peer at the child, taking care to mark his place in his book. Christ is playing with an apple – a symbol of the fall of humankind, of which he is the Redeemer. Behind them is a classical landscape with ruins, serving as a stage set on which the drama of the picture takes place.

Known as the ‘Montalto Madonna’ after its patron, Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto, this small painting on copper was one of Annibale Carracci’s most celebrated and copied works, but was presumed lost for 300 years. The composition was famous in the seventeenth century – it was described in early literary sources, including Giovan Pietro Bellori’s Lives of the Artists (1672), and was reproduced in both engravings and painted copies. When this painting was rediscovered in 2003 its high quality and refined execution allowed it to be identified as Annibale’s original. This was confirmed by an inscription and an inventory number on the back, which it was given when in the collection of Filippo III Colonna in Rome in the eighteenth century.

There is no documentary evidence for when this painting was made, but it must have been painted after 1594, when Annibale went to Rome. Annibale’s monumental fresco cycle for the ceiling of the Palazzo Farnese became his crowning achievement in the city, but while he was there he also came across other artists working on a much smaller scale in copper, such as Adam Elsheimer. This encouraged him to make several small pictures on copper, including Christ appearing to Saint Anthony Abbot during his Temptation and this painting. Here, the scene’s natural tenderness is rooted in Annibale’s admiration for Correggio, while the slightly later works he painted in Rome have a more classical style, which can be seen in Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way.

The poses of the figures look spontaneous, but the composition has been carefully composed. The Virgin and Child form a pyramid in the centre, the outer edges of which are paralleled by the forms of Saints John and Joseph. They both look inwards at the central group, directing our eyes towards the principal characters. Annibale also uses colour and light to focus our attention, giving Mary and Jesus stronger, more saturated colours and lighting them more brilliantly than the other figures. The Virgin leans out and looks towards us, engaging us with her bold gaze, while the Christ Child wriggles on her lap and looks away to the side.

The rich balance of colour, the harmony of form and movement, and the play of light make this one of Annibale’s greatest small paintings, and reveal the impact of Correggio on his work. (NG)