The young Virgin is kneeling on a meadow. She is reading while little Jesus is taking his first steps towards her, supported by an angel. She interrupts her book and turns the attention to her son. The right hand still holds the book open while the left seems to touch her chest, as if to reaffirm her new motherhood. She is looking at her child lovingly.
On the sides of the circular painting there are two angels moving the curtains of an elegant baldachin, which the artist had designed on a drawing, preserved today in the department of drawings and prints of the Uffizi galleries. The baldachin dominates the scene and gives depth to the space. The background is a harmonious landscape with hills that recalls the area of Val d’Arno, not far from Florence.
The painting takes its name for the baldachin above the figures and Botticelli added several symbols linked to Mary, such as the white lilies that symbolize purity but also the city of Florence where the artist was born. There are also red fruits in the garland that decorates the baldachin, referring to the fate of Jesus and to his Passion.
According to art historians the work could be the “picciol tondo” that Giorgio Vasari recalls in the Life of Botticelli (1568) at the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, once placed in the room of prior Guido di Lorenzo d’Antonio.
The work came to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana after 1798 when it was not yet mentioned in the inventory of the collection. It probably came in 1813, the year of the death of Marquise Fiorenza Talenti, benefactor of the Collegio Oblati di Rho nearby Milan and donor of the artwork. In fact, the painting appears for the first in the description of the collection in 1837.
The circular painting is dated between 1480 -1490 because Botticelli painted other works of similar style during this period, such the altarpiece of San Marco and the Coronation of the Virgin of the Uffizi galleries. His figures were characterized by the same melancholic expression and the accentuated lines in the drapery or in the profiles of the figures in this artistic period.
The work was definitely made before the death of his patron and friend Lorenzo the Magnificent (1492) and the rise of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1494 – 1498) who strongly condemned Lorenzo’s elegant and luxurious lifestyle and his neoplatonic ideas which were shared by the painter.
From that time Botticelli’s artistic style became harder and more tragic. This Madonna is still linked to the sweet and elegant style of Botticelli’s female figures, like those represented in the Birth of Venus and Primavera at the Uffizi. The defined and elegant robes and the baldachin are from the neoplatonic period, even though you can sense some nervousness in the drapery and slight harshness of forms, which almost seems to presage the mystical change of the artist.
The painting is signed with the initials S.M.F. (Sandro Mariano fecit) in one of the lapels of the baldachin.
Botticelli’s sophisticated style and his great attention to details as well as the brightness of the colors were re-emerged after a recent restoration.
Botticelli was born in 1445 in Florence, where he studied with Filippo Lippi with whom he painted the frescoes of Prato cathedral.
He painted many versions of Madonna and Child, which have very similar style to Filippo Lippi, even though after meeting Andrea del Verrocchio and Antonio Pollaiolo he changed his artistic views.
In the 1470s’ he began to work independently and attended the Neoplatonic academy, which put him in contact with Agnolo Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino and the Medici family. He became soon one of the favorites of Lorenzo the Magnificent and brother Giuliano, who commissioned a portrait of himself in 1478. Botticelli became a faithful interpret of the modern Florentine society and culture and his elegant and sophisticated paintings represented the ideal neoplatonic and harmonic beauty of the time. His graceful Madonnas, elegant portraits of the women loved by the Medici family and praised by the literature of the time, charismatic mythological and biblical characters are still today a symbol of the first Florentine renaissance.
In this golden era Botticelli illustrated the Divine Comedy commented by Cristoforo Landino and painted the frescoes Temptations of Christ (1481) in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
In Florence he painted religious subjects, the Venuses, the Primavera and mythological themes like Pallas and the Centaur, Venus and Mars, which often hide complex allegories with philosophical meanings.
The death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492 and the expulsion of the Medici family after the conflict with Savonarola and Piagnoni influenced Botticelli’s life. His art was marked by earthly beauty and spiritual purity and in his later career he abandoned pagan myths and concentrated on religious art.
Botticelli died in Florence in 1510.
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in 1618 by cardinal Federico Borromeo, when he donated his art collection to the Ambrosiana library, which was founded by him as well in 1607. The building was named after the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose.
It was the first museum in the world to be open to the public. The history of the Pinacoteca and the library goes hand in hand, as this was also the first library to be open to the public. The book collection includes prestigious volumes, among them Petrarch’s Virgil with illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini and Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, donated in 1637 by Galeazzo Arconati.
In fact, cardinal’s plan was to display art with its symbology and evocative power to serve Christian values reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which were threatened by the diffusion of the Protestant reformation.
The academy was added in 1637 and transferred to Brera in 1776. It was supposed to be an artistic school of painting, sculpture and architecture which would allow the students to learn from the great models of the history.
The building was designed by architect Fabio Mangone (1587-1629) and it is located in the city center. The space is expanded over 1500 square meters and divided into twenty-two rooms. The cardinal illustrated the works and the objects himself in his book in Latin, Museum (1625), which still today represents the main nucleus of the Pinacoteca.
Through commissions and purchases Federico Borromeo’s collection grew with the paintings of Lombard and Tuscan schools, among them works by Raphael, Correggio and Bernardino Luini and casts from Leone Leoni’s workshop, arriving to a total of 3000 artworks of which 300 are exhibited.
There are great masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo Da Vinci (1480), Madonna del Padiglione by Botticelli (1495), the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael (before 1510), the Holy Family with St. Anne and Young St. John by Bernardino Luini (1530) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano (1547).
A great part of the collection is dedicated to landscape and to still life, because the Cardinal saw the nature as an important tool raising the human mind into the Divine. For this reason, Federico collected Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and the miniature paintings by Jan Brueghel and Paul Brill.
After the cardinal’s death the collection was enriched with the donations of the artworks from 15th and 16th centuries, such as the frescoes by Bramantino and Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble self-portraits. Museo Settala, one of the first museums in Italy, founded by canonical Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), was joined to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in 1751. The museum is a sort of science history museum with a variety of curiosities of all time.
During the period of growth, the museum required some structural and architectural changes as well, including the expansion of the exhibition halls between 1928 and 1931, which were decorated with 13th century miniature motifs of Ambrosian codes, and between 1932 and 1938 a new series of restorations was implemented under the guidance of Ambrogio Annoni. The renowned readjustment in 1963 was curated by architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and the museum excursus was concluded with the current reorganization between 1990 and 1997.