The young Virgin appears in a vision to Santa Francesca Romana, founder of the order of the Oblates who lived between the end of the 14th century and the first half of the following century, offering her the privilege of taking the baby Jesus in her arms. The sweet Madonna wears a red dress, partly covered by a blue mantle, colours that are attributed to her, and sitting on soft clouds she leans towards Francesca to offer her son.
The saint is depicted as a nun, kneeling on a step, and welcoming the child holding him on her white veil. She approaches him with an expression of maternal tenderness, almost touching the baby’s chubby face and he senses her affection and caresses her cheek with his little hand with the typical curiosity of newborns. Behind Francesca, at the right end of the painting, we can see her guardian angel who watches the tender scene with his hands crossed on his chest.
In the background, rows of angels diffuse a golden and celestial light that illuminates the image and contrasts with the dark clouds and the heavy green curtain placed above, while the real light coming from the right illuminates the faces and the tender expressions of Francesca and the Child and their clothes, thus bringing out refined details, such as the transparent veil that covers the Virgin’s head.
The precious contrasts, even though not as dramatic as those of Caravaggio, reveal that Orazio Gentileschi had assimilated and made his own examples of Merisi and his followers. It is also true that the artist knew well the Tuscan painting of his time. The simple composition and setting of such an extraordinary sacred vision in a serene and intimate everyday ambient, expressed in detail such as the prayer book casually placed on the chipped steps and the saint who wears a pair of simple black slippers in the presence of the sacred creature, echoes not only Caravaggio’s naturalism but also works by Tuscan artists such as Santi di Tito and Jacopo da Empoli. Their large religious altarpieces are characterized by a strong humanization of sacred scenes, and they are often recognizable for their town settings which were intended to make the sacred story more understandable and empathetic to the people, according to the reference canons of the Counter-Reformation.
Gentileschi painted the work during the years in Fabriano, towards the end of the second decade of the 17th century, for the Church of Santa Caterina Martire dei Benedettini, when the long restructuring of the church was being completed. His sources were the biography of Santa Francesca Romana written by the confessor Giovanni Mattiotti and that of Ippolito da Roma. The iconographic inspiration was certainly taken from the 15th-century paintings illustrating the life and visions of Santa Francesca Romana from the Olivetan church of Santa Maria Nuova and the frescoes by Antoniazzo Romano in the church of Tor de Specchi from 1460.
The work remained in Santa Caterina until 1798, when the French, who had occupied the territory, suppressed the church and the convent. The painting was given to the abbot Silvestro Marcellini who lived in the suppressed monastery protected by the state property officer Carlo Rosei. He inherited the painting along with the monastery’s entire collection, which then passed to Ugo and Carolina Agabiti Rosei who sold the work to the Italian State in 1941. The painting was then placed in the National Gallery of the Marche.
Orazio was born in Pisa but trained in Florence with his elder brother Aurelio Lomi. When he was only seventeen, he moved to Rome with his uncle and took his last name, Gentileschi. In Papal city, the young artist was fascinated by the works of Emilian painters, especially Guido Reni, even though it was the naturalism of Caravaggio and his followers that left the greatest mark on his works. There is a work that stands out and distinguishes itself for its clear and diluted chromatism compared to the works of Merisi, and for a plastic power that derives from his Tuscan origins, formed in the tradition linked to drawing and Mannerism, which can be seen in precious details such iridescent fabrics and light shades.
Examples of this are works such as St. Francis with the Stigmata Supported by an Angel, or a later work St. Cecilia with the Saints Tiburtius and Valerian (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera) depicting an angel with a white cloak gliding from above, seeming like a softened version of Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy. Gentileschi, who was always on the move, left several works in Rome, such as the frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (Circumcision) and the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano (St. Thaddeus). After his stay in Lazio, the painter moved to Fabriano in 1613, where he painted another St. Francis Supported by an Angel, and then to Ancona, where he worked on the frescoes in the cathedral and the church of San Benedetto. At the beginning of the 1620s’ Gentileschi travelled to Genoa as a guest of the Banker Antonio Sauli, who ordered various works from him, such as Danae, Lot and His Daughters and the Annunciation in two versions of which one is held in Turin and one in Genoa (Church of San Siro). The Turin version is more famous and qualitatively better and the artist seems to concentrate on the legacy of his masters in the elegance and plasticity of Tuscan Mannerism, as seen in the attention to detail according to the Flemish culture and the clear light and contrasts that recall the works of Caravaggio.
In Genoa, Orazio met the Flemish painter Antoon Van Dyck, who portrayed him and convinced him to join him in London in 1626, at the court of Charles I Stuart. Before this, in 1624, Gentileschi stopped in the Parisian court of Maria Dei Medici, queen of France. He knew the work of local Caravaggesque artists, such as Valentin de Boulogne, Simon Vouet, and Georges de La Tour, but also Dutch painters who influenced him considerably.
Gentileschi arrived in England in 1626 and spent the rest of his life in the court of Charles I with a salary of 500 lire a year. He painted various works such as the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Paris, Louvre Museum) and the Finding of Moses (Madrid, Museo del Prado), as well as the paintings for the Royal residence in Greenwich and Buckingham Palace. One of them is Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, preserved today at the Hampton Court Palace.
His daughter, Artemisia, became even more famous than him as a painter. His two brothers Francesco and Giulio were also itinerant artists. Artemisia is inextricably linked to Agostino Tassi, a landscape painter who collaborated with Orazio around 1610 on the frescoes of the Loggia di Montecavallo in Rome, who abused the young woman.
National Gallery of the Marche