The painting is a counterpart of the famous Madonna of the Veil by Raphael, which was situated once in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, and which is preserved today in the Museum of Capodimonte as well.
The oil on blackboard painting by Sebastiano del Piombo portrays the young Virgin while lifting the veil to show her naked and sleeping little son. The mother’s look is sweet but shaded by a sense of melancholy and anxiety while looking at her baby. Behind Mary you can see Joseph. He is looking at her little son and like the young mother, he has a serious expression, reflecting anxiety and pain. On the right you can see little Saint John, protected by Mary’s large cloak, who seems to take shelter in the reassuring and imposing figure of Mary. John has crossed his hands on his chest, and he is looking down at his cousin with a sad and painful gaze.
There is an evident contrast between the serenity of the sleeping child, unaware of his destiny, and the sadness of his parents and John, already seeing the future that awaits him.
Sebastiano made some variations compared to Raphael’s painting, which show his constant desire to experiment both technical and stylistic point of view. The same choice of material – blackboard instead of canvas or panel, which he began to experiment after 1529 - represents an unusual interpretation of a painter like Raphael, who was already considered a classic example at that time, and of a popular subject. In fact, Madonna of the Veil was a very copied painting already since the 16th century.
Capodimonte’s replica, made for Pope Paul III Farnese, is not the only one by Sebastiano, who had already made a first mirror version of Raphael’s work around 1520 for Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, future Pope Clement VII and yet another copy, considered his work, even earlier than the one in question. However, in his oil on blackboard painting the artist summarized everything he had learned of artistic culture at that point, in particular the power and robustness of Michelangelo’s figures in the Sistine Chapel, the shades of chiaroscuro, the use of light and color in Venetian style and the landscapes and figures that took inspiration from the Tuscan and Roman culture, which he had studied in Florence and Rome.
There is no reference to any particular setting, except for the curtain that emerges from the corner of the background, to focus the attention of the viewers only at the figures, which are placed very close to each other in the foreground.
The painting is probably the one mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in the life of Sebastiano del Piombo, placed in a palace of the Farnese family, which then arrived to Naples in the 18th century with Charles of Bourbon, king of Naples and son of Elisabetta Farnese, the last descendant of the noble family.
Sebastiano Luciani, known as Sebastiano del Piombo, was born in Venice in 1485. The nickname “del Piombo” derives from his appointment as the official of the apostolic chancery and registrar of the Papal seals, conferred in 1531 by Pope Clement VII.
After an early career as a musician (Vasari recalls him as a lute player) he devoted himself to panting by attending Giovanni Bellini’s workshop, whose influence can be seen in Madonna with Child and Two Saints of the Gallerie dell’Accademia (1504-1505).
Other than Master Bellini, Sebastiano’s work was influenced by Giorgione and especially by some of his works which nowadays have been lost, such as the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. He adopted the same nuanced pictorialism, preferring the compositional monumentality that later facilitated his insertion to the Roman environment.
From this period are the figures of saints in niches on the organ-shutters of San Bartolomeo in Venice (ca. 1508) and the unfinished Judgement of Solomon (1508-1509).
In 1511 Sebastiano moved to Rome where he worked for Agostino Chigi and met Michelangelo with whom he had a long friendship. His first assignment, in competition with Raphael, was the representation of Polyphemus for Villa Farnesina, placed next to the Triumph of Galatea of the master of Urbino.
Among the masterpieces of the Roman period, which were characterized by austere and melancholic religiosity, are the Pietà of the Museo Civico of Viterbo (ca. 1516), one his greatest masterpieces painted for Giovanni Botonti, dignitary of the pontiff, The Hermitage (1516), situated in St. Petersburg, the decoration of the Borgherini chapel in San Pietro in Montorio (1517-1524) the Visitation (1521), situated in Louvre, which was made for the wife of king Francesco I, the Flagellation in the Museo Civico of Viterbo (1525), Christ Carrying the Cross, of which there are several versions and finally the altarpiece of the Chigi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo (1532).
In 1517 he received a commission from the future Pope Giulio de’ Medici and found himself again in competition with Raphael. They both were commissioned a work for the Narbonne cathedral in France. Raphael made the Transfiguration and Sebastiano painted the Resurrection. Eventually cardinal decided to keep the Transfiguration to himself and he sent to France the Resurrection, which is today preserved in the National Gallery of London.
In 1527 Sebastiano escaped the Sack of Rome to his hometown Venice, were he stayed until 1529.
In 1531 he was nominated Keeper of the Seal (piombatore, “of the lead”) by Pope Clement VII and from that moment he had less activity as a painter.
In 1534 the long-term friendship with Michelangelo ends in a bad way, when he refused Sebastiano’s technical advice during the execution of the Last Judgment and cut off their friendship for good.
Del Piombo’s most important works, both quantitatively and qualitatively, are his portraits, which were stylistically independent from the works by Raphael and Michelangelo. Among them are the Portrait of a Shepherd with a Flute, Portrait of Cardinal Sauli and Portrait of Pope Clement VII made in 1526.
Sebastiano died on 21 June 1547 in Rome.
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.
In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.
The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.
The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.
In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.
Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.