The work was owned by the marquises Pes Di Villamarina and it was added to the Roman collection of the princes of Torlonia before being purchased by the State of Italy from the antique market in December 1985 and placed in the National Gallery of the Marche in Urbino.
The painting includes a motif that was dear to Giovan Battista Salvi, better known as Sassoferrato, which he added to his works many times, sometimes with a variation. There is a young Madonna on the dark background illuminated by the divine light that surrounds her head, holding a sleeping Child tightly with both arms and cradling him lovingly on her chest while leaning her head on him to protect him. She looks sleepy but she is just resting. Her half-closed eyes are turned toward her baby and are those of a mother watching over her child.
Sassoferrato creates an image of profound religiosity and a poetic figuration of maternal love in an intense and intimate embrace between mother and child through a rigorous drawing and a perfect painting in the composition and construction of the forms defined as “timeless” by the critics due to its details that take inspiration from the classicist style of Raphael and Emilian painters of the 17th century, such as Reni, Albani and Domenichino, who was Salvi’s teacher in Rome and Naples.
Rome at the time was dominated by the Baroque movement and the aftermath of the naturalist revolution of Caravaggio and his followers. Sassoferrato specialized in the figuration of sacred images with a strong devotional character, where the Virgin was always the protagonist, taking inspiration from the examples of young Raphael and Perugino, who lived over a century ago but updated them with the examples of Emilian and Roman Classicism. Therefore, he is referred to as “pre-Raphaelite ante litteram” and his work lacks the angst seen in the works of Dante Gabriele Rossetti and his companions.
The painter created a few models, which he then repeated in several variations and replicas, showing the result of constant research throughout his life and returning several times to his themes. He tirelessly copied the great masters of the past and present also through drawings and engravings.
There are so many replicas and variants that evidence his great success among his contemporaries, not only objects of devotion but also real works of art that met the taste of the clients and collectors of the time.
The painting of Urbino dates back to the artist’s full maturity, around the middle of the 17th century, and shows the iconography of the Virgin with the Sleeping Child presented in two ways. In this painting the forms are rigorous, and the pictorial quality is very high. Madonna’s head is reclined to the right and the Child rests his head on his mother’s right shoulder, while other versions are mirrored with the Child leaning on the Virgin’s left shoulder.
Madonna’s head is covered with a light beige cloth, and she is wearing a red dress and an abundant cloak of soft blue colour according to the iconography of the Virgin, which the artist has reproduced with bright tones and refined elegance, as seen in the softly falling folds that seem to cradle the chubby child with red cheeks, whose intense and serene sleep preludes his destiny of Passion and pain.
The references to the classicist Emilian painting of the 17th century are not limited to formal purity in the Urbino work. The figure of the Virgin is inspired by the works of Guido Reni, as well as the general composition according to the critics, although no painting or actual model for the work has been identified among the known works of the Bolognese master. Some engravings that have been linked to the painter and his circle for the writing “Guid Rhen in et ed” suggest, however, that there is a connection. In addition, critics have identified in the Child and mother’s position a sort of quotation linked to Caravaggio and his Rest during the Flight into Egypt (Rome, Galleria Doria Pamphili). The light effects that enhance the perfect balance of shapes and colours do not seem far from the chiaroscuro contrasts in Merisi’s work, even though here we can see a much more delicate, soft, harmonious, and enveloping tone.
There are other variants of the painting of the National Gallery of the Marche which differ in chromatic tones, such as the white veil of the Virgin and the composition, preserved in museums and collections all over Europe, from Cesena (Pinacoteca Comunale) and Chambery (Museum of Fine Arts) in Madrid (Museo del Prado), from London (Wallace Collection) to the Hague (Galleria Cramer) in Avignon.
Another variant is the Virgin and Child in a mirrored position compared to the painting in question and a cloak that leaves Mary’s shoulder uncovered, with some chubby cherubs added to the painting.
Giovan Battista Salvi, whose nickname derives from the town in the Marche where he was born in 1609, trained with his father Tarquinio, author of the Stories of St. Francis for the cloister of Santa Maria della Pace in Sassoferrato, and followed the examples of naturalist painters such as Orazio Gentileschi and Francesco Gurrieri, who were living in nearby town Fabriano at the time.
Not much is known of the early activity of Sassoferrato who seemed to dedicate most of his time to devotional works and copies of paintings which he then sold, made of the works of Emilian masters and Raphael whose works he studied through prints at first. Also, the Madonnas of Pierre Mignard, a French classicist painter who was active in Rome, became an important source for Salvi, who studied them through the prints of François de Polly.
The Holy Family, but above all Madonna with Child, often in small format, became his preferred subject. He painted many of them, which are now preserved in public and private collections worldwide, especially in England where his pure and simple art style, often compared to that of the greatly admired Raphael, became popular between the end of the 17th century and mid-18th century.
The first known work of Sassoferrato is the Annunciation made for the monastery of Santa Chiara in his hometown (circa 1625). Three years later he was working in Rome where he arrived perhaps thanks to Torquato Perotti, aristocrat of Sassoferrato and secret servant of Pope Urban VIII. The artist stayed at the home of Domenico Zampieri, better known as Domenichino, who also worked as his teacher for a few months. His paintings, like the works of the other Emilian painters in Rome at that time – Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni and Francesco Albani among them – greatly influenced Sassoferrato’s work, especially in the use of smooth and bright colours, which look almost enamelled, recurrent in his canvases and result of his practice with the majolica art in his father’s workshop.
In the 1630s’ Salvi travelled a lot between Rome and the Marche, where he worked on important commissions, such as the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist for San Ermete a Castagna, close to Sassoferrato (Sassoferrato, Civic Art Collection) or the Madonna and Child with Saints Philip Neri and Anthony the Great for the Church of Ospedale di Sant’Antonio Abate, also in Sassoferrato, where the references to the classicism of the Emilian painters are evident, as well as his interest in landscape painting influenced by the paintings of Claude Lorrain and the Flemish culture.
His stay in Perugia in the 1630s’ also favoured an intense study of the works of Perugino whose painting was a bit old-fashioned for the taste of the time. However, Perugino as well as Raphael, whose work the Deposition of Christ from 1639 Sassoferrato copied, represent an important reference for his paintings, such as the Adoration of the Shepherds (Naples, Capodimonte Museum) and other works he painted for the monastery of San Pietro, which are truly influenced by the two masters. The painting with Saints Maurus, Placidus, Scholastica and Justine takes inspiration from the predella of Perugino’s polyptych in the Church of San Pietro, while the Annunciation recalls the Angel and the Virgin of the predella of Pala Oddi del Sanzio, in the Church of San Francesco in Prato that time.
In the early 1640s’, Sassoferrato returned to Rome where he painted the Madonna Appearing to St. Francis of Paola for the ceiling of the church dedicated to the saint and Madonna del Rosario with St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena for the church of Santa Sabina, commissioned by Olimpia Pamphili, princess of Rossano. For the noble Roman family, Salvi also painted the Holy Family and Praying Madonna (Rome, Galleria Doria Pamphili) and for Duke Giuliano Cesarini he worked on the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine (London, Wallace Collection) destined for the Church of Santa Maria della Cima in Genzano which has a preparatory drawing preserved at the Windsor Castle.
While Sassoferrato was known as a prolific painter of sacred and devotional art, he was also a portraitist and familiar with the techniques of black pencil and coloured pastels, as evidenced by the various sheets preserved today in the Royal Library of Windsor. He mainly portrayed religious persons such as Cardinal Angelo Francesco Rapaccioli, close to the powerful Barberini family, Monsignor Ottaviano Prati (Rome, National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Barberini) and Pietro Ottoboni, future Pope Alexander VIII (Padua, Civic Museums).
The painter himself was particularly devoted and used to wear a Franciscan robe.
Sassoferrato died in Rome in the summer of 1685.
National Gallery of the Marche