The enchanting painting in the round shape of a Tondo offers us a glimpse into a charming vision of the delicate intimacy between the Heavenly Mother and her Child. The little Jesus, who is situated on a plinth, glances gaily at his Mother and stretches his arms towards her embracing her gently with his left arm wrapped around her neck. This joyful sentiment of her Son, who seeks her eyes is echoed by the Heavenly Mother through an intimate inner joy which is written on her face and shared with the beholder, to whom she addresses herself with a shy and yet vivacious glance. This serene moment of heavenly intimacy is disrupted by the two lively putti angels, presumably a cherub and seraph, appearing behind the parapet that closes of the scene against the blue sky. The blue winged cherub leans animatedly over the wall and grasps a white rose of the bunch of roses discernible on the railing in the left foreground. This animated, yet composed and serene heavenly vision, as it is depicted here, appears, despite its apparent inspirations drawn from models invented by a slightly elder generation of Florentine painters, as a highly original creation on behalf of the unknown Florentine artist, who had composed this charming Tondo.
As this painting had been concealed for many decades in the collection of the family, that had acquired it in 1937 from Böhler in Munich, it was unattainable for a thorough art historical assessment and consequently its authorship remained obscure. After a first approximative assignement to an anonymous Tuscan painter of the 15th century, a recent publication of the Dresdner bank sale to the Berliner Museen in 1935, (Lynn Rother; Berlin Boston 2017, p. 143 ff and 381) suggested an attribution to a certain Bartolomeo di Stefano. This appears as a misinterpretation and misreading of a label on the back of the painting which reads Bartolomeo di Giovanni, a Florentine Renaissance painter who worked in close contact with Domenico del Ghirlandaio. While an attribution to Bartolomeo di Giovanni cannot be sustained, this proposal might, however, to a certain extend encompass the artistic milieu of our anonymous Florentine painter, in so far as our artist the same as Bartolomeo di Giovanni seems to have been active at a certain period in close contact with Domenico Ghirlandaio. However, as we are going to discuss below, it was not Ghirlandaio alone, that determined our painter’s style, which during the painter’s initial phase furthermore owed much to Andrea del Verrocchio’s art around 1465-75. Who was the painter, who created our delightful Virgin and Child?
As is suggested by a comparison with another stylistically congruent Tondo with an Adoration of the Child in Galleria Borhese in Rome (fig.2,4, 5) as well as with the large pala of an Annunciation in the Basilica Santa Maria Assunta in Bagno di Romagna (fig.7,24) and clearly painted by the same hand, there can be no doubt, that all three paintings were carried out within the same workshop, headed by a mysterious, anonymous Florentine painter, baptized after the Tondo in the Borghese Gallery in Rome(fig.2). The oeuvre of this unknown painter was first singled out by H. Ullmann in 1896 (Ulmann 1896, p.139) and G. De Francovich in 1926/27 (G. De Francovich, 1926/27 p.535-540), who, by observing a determiant artistic relationship with Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, believed to be able to assign his then limited oeuvre to an artist called Jacopo del Tedescho, an artist mentioned by Giorgio Vasari among Ghirlandaio’s pupils (G. Vasari1568, ed.1878/1906). This proposal, however, lacks any sound evidence and induced Everett Fahy to reject such an identification and baptize this still anonymous painter after his beautiful Tondo with the Adoration of the Child in the Galleria Borghese (fig.2), thus calling him the “Master of the Borghese Tondo” (Fahy 1976, p. 167-168).
Since Fahy’s publication the art historical assessment of this anonymous painter had been further developed and produced a new and at the same time more precise view of his art. This was owed primarily to Lisa Venturini, who in a short catalogue essay of an exhibition dedicated to the Florentine Renaissance Masters and their workshops dedicated a few pages to the Master of the Tondo Borghese (L. Venturini , 1992,p. 283-289). In her attempt to reassess the catalogue of this painter she furnished a listing with at least six datable works, thus offering various important cornerstones to analyze the master’s artistic development. The earliest dated painting which dates to the last decade of the 15th century, is an Assumption of the Virgin in the Galleria Bellini in Florence,which bears the date 1494 (fig. 29). Dated to the year 1501 is a mystical marriage of Saint Catherine in the church of San Jacopo in Corbolini (fig. 8) and 1503 was the year, when a Sacra Conversazione with Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child flanked by Saint Philippe and John the Baptist in the church of San Andrea in Doccia (Pontassieve) was accomplished.
In 1505 the artist completed some frescoes including an Annunciation, still visible in the church of Sant’Agata in Florence (fig.9 ),whereas two large panels in the churches of Sant’Angelo and San Pietro a Legnaia are from 1511. All these paintings,which mark a mature and late moment of our painter, reveal clear artistic assonances to the works of Domenico Ghirlandaio on one hand (d. 1494) and Cosimo Rosselli (d.1507) and in my opinion also to Biagio d’ Antonio (d.1516) on the other. More than beeing a follower of these artists, our painter must have belonged approximately to the same generation and it is probable, that he could have been active in their workshops.
At a certain point of, his career he could have been active with Ghirlandaio, whose Adoration of the Magi from 1487 in the Uffizi in Florence (fig.11) he had repeated in a slightly simpler manner on a Tondo of the Galeria Palatina in Florence (fig.10, cf. Serena Padovani , Lucia Acquino, 2014, p.200-202). This beautiful variant based on Ghirlandaio’s invention probably marks a moment, when, presumably around 1487-1490, our painter could have collaborated with this protagonist of Florentine painting. It is also then, when his art seems to have developped towards Ghirlandaio and later markedly towards Cosimo Rosselli. However, his name piece in the Galleria Borghese (fig.2) the same as our painting under discussion (fig.1) and the stylistically related Annunciation in the Basilica Santa Maria Assunta in Bagno di Romagna (fig.7, 24) reveal an artistic current,which belonges to a slightly earlier date and might mark the beginnings of our painter’s career, linked, as I belive, to the dominating influence of one of the greatest impresarios of Florentine art production – be it in sculpture, applied arts as well as painting -, Andrea del Verrocchio (fig.12,14) . In the 1460s and particularly 1470 s Verrocchio’s art became in Florence some sort of point of reference for the emerging generation of Florentine painters, such as Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi and last but not least Leonardo da Vinci.
This becomes quite clear if we compare the sculptural quality of the figures in our painting and the luminous effects on their fleshtones, which are rendered here similarly - albeit somwhat softer and less metallic - as in the Madonnas ascribed to Verrocchio and his workshop. As a matter of fact our Madonna appears in the softness of the modelling and the luminous effects of the flesh tones as a synthesis of aspects of the “pittura di luce” as it was achieved by Lippo Lippi (d. 1469) and the naturalistic innovations introduced by Verrocchio. In this regard he shares certain issues discernible in Domenico di Ghirlandaio’s earliest paintings, such as the Verrocchiesque Madonna and Child in the Alana collection datable towards 1470-1475 (fig.13, cf.A Staderini in: Sonia Chiodo, Serena Padovani 2014, pp. 81-85), consequently more or less contemporary with Ghirlandaio’s graceful frescoes painted in 1475 in the Santa Fina chapel in the Collegiata in San Gimignano (fig.19,20). Undoubtedly our Tondo reflects the Madonnas associated with Verrocchio’s workshop as well as Ghirlandaio’s early works of the 1470s.
We suspect, that the Master of the BorgheseTondo, when creating the Tondo under discussion, drew on a modell which was conceived within the workshop of Verrocchio and later was interpreted by various of his Florentine contemporaries (fig.15-17). This archetype, consist of the Virgin seated and gently holding the Child who stands on her lap or, as it is the case for our panel, on a plinth, and at the same time seeks with his eyes her attention. This model resurfaces in a variations in Botticelli’s early Madonna Corsini in the National Gallery in Washington (fig. 16) and in reversed view in a painting formerly in London by Biagio d’ Antonio (fig.17). Since all these paintings are linked to the 1470s we might deduce, that also the charming Tondo of our anonymous Florentine painter (fig.15,18) might have been painted not too distant in time from the 8th decade of the 15th century and could mark an initial phase of his career which was visibly characterized by a clear reverence to Ghirlandaio’s interpretation of Verrocchio’s art in the 1470s. At a closer look we can discern certain stylistic assonances to Ghirlandaio’s early paintings such as the fresco cycle dedicated to Santa Fina in the collegiata of San Gimignano (fig.19,20) which still reveals Verrocchio’s influence on his early style.
These considerations for our painting would make the present Tondo the earliest work known so far by our master. It should be dated towards 1480 and marks a decidedly Verrocchiesque moment in his career which must have initiated in close contact with Domenico Ghirlandaio, whom he might have assisted as early as in the 1470s. The animated action given to the angels appears to reflect some of Fra Filippo Lippi’s inventions such as the Madonna and Child with Angels in the Uffizi in Florence (fig. 21) which are also echoed in Madonnas created within Verrocchio’s workshop such as the Salting Madonna in the National Gallery in London (fig.15, 22), both painted between 1465 (Lippi, fig. 21) and 1469 (Verrocchio fig. 22).
Undoubtedly the present Tondo, presumably our artist’s earliest effort and at the same time one of his most appealing paintings leads towards his name piece in the Gallerie Borghese (fig.2), for which recent scholars have postulated a date between 1487 and 1490. This date, however, could I my opinion be anticipated for a few years. Undeniably, the Virgin of the latter is conceived on the same typology as our Madonna, however in this incident we discern a slightly more metallic modelling and certain minor simplifications of the forms. A bridge between these two paintings might be offered by the already mentioned large panel with the Annunciation in the Basilica Santa Maria Assunta in Bagno di Romagna (fig. 3, 24) where the Virgin Annunciate presents herself as a virtual sister of our Madonna. This painting that would have been painted chronologically close to our Tondo is of particular interest, since it reflects the esthetic taste and growing interest on behalf of Florentine painters, Ghirlandaio in particular, for Flemish art, discernible in the second half of the 15th century. Even though the conversation between the Virgin and the kneeling Angel Annunciate is firmly rooted in Florentine pictorial traditions, the spatial conception of the picture unmistakeably appears as a derivation of Flemish concepts, as they were designed by painters such as Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling for instance in his Annunciation in the Metropolitan Museum of art (fig.25). The Thalamus Virginis in the painting of Bagno di Romagna (fig.24) with the two bed curtains rolled in producing the shape of a hanging pear is a clear Flemish invention, as it repeatedly recurs in Flemish depictions of the Annunciation be it in painting be it on parchment of the lushly decorated Flemisch manuscripts. The same is true for the scenario offered by a dimly lit bedroom where in the background we discern the opening of a loggia which offers a view into a distant landscape. Such interieurs were a common place in Flemish painting and became fashionable in Florentine painting in the milieu of Ghilrandaio and Verrocchio as well as in the earler paintings of Leonardo da Vinci.
With the rediscovery of the charming Tondo under discussion, we were able to shed some new light on the early career of the anonymous Florentine painter called after his Tondo with an Adoration of the Child in the Galleria Borghese in Rome (fig.2). The early paintings of the Master of the Tondo Borghese datable between 1480 and 1490 which were generally of respectable artistic quality, were a promise, which, however, in the later phase of our artist’s career was hardly ever kept. His later efforts were frequently characterized by simplification in the design which ultimately resulted in paintings of a somewhat wooden and stiff appearance, as it can best seen in a further tondo in the Musée Fesch in Ajaccio (fig.26 28) where we discern figures of a comparable typology as those in our Tondo, which, however, were carried out in a slightly crude manner that lacked all the graphic and paintterly finesse of his earliest works. His later and at the same time best known career seems to have been dominated by a strong adherence to the art of Cosimo Rosselli, as it is already discernible in works still reaching into the final years of the 15th century, such as the dated (1494) Assumption of the Virgin in the Galleria Bellini in Florence (fig. 29). This aspect of our painter’s art persits well into the final years of his career and resurfaces for instance in his dated (1511) Pala in the church of Sant’Andrea in Legnaia (Florence)(fig.30) which appears like a hommage to Rosselli,who had passed away a mere four years earlier.
The fortunate rediscovery of our truly charming painting has made it possible to gain some new insights into the early career of the Master of the Borghese Tondo. This artistic phase was in my opinion the most appealing moment of his atistic career. At the same time, now, that the painting has been made accessible to our eyes, we are enabled to share the feeling of joy of its earliest owner as he, during a moment of quiet peace and spiritual immersion, watched the painting hanging on the wall of one of his private chambers. Tondi and other similar objects for private devotion were ordered by the wealthy citizens to adorn their palaces and were commonly hung on the walls of bedrooms (fig. 31 ). There, such paintings induced the beholder to get absorbed in silent prayer and spiritual immersion or, in moments of need, to faithfully turn to the Virgin and her Son as they are depicted there, since the bedrooms were the place, where birth was given and also where often life would end.