Lot 28
  • 28

Domenico Beccafumi

500,000 - 700,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Domenico Beccafumi
  • The Holy Family
  • oil on poplar panel


Believed to have been acquired in the mid-nineteenth century;
Thence by descent to the aunt of the present owner.

Catalogue Note

Previously unpublished, this painting executed on a thick poplar panel by the Sienese High Renaissance master Beccafumi, has been housed in the same aristocratic collection for over 150 years. Obscured for more than a century by areas of overpaint, a largely intact original has now been recovered and many beautifully subtle passages revealed. Beccafumi’s highly individual brushwork is most evident in the facial features of the Madonna and her Child and in the head of St Joseph, which, in its freedom of execution evokes Beccafumi’s experimental sketches of heads in oil on paper.

Infra-red imaging carried out on the panel has revealed extensive underdrawing that in its free exploration of forms and preference for starkly contrasting areas of light and dark, is characteristic of the artist (fig. 1).1 Using a brush rather than a dry medium, Beccafumi concentrated his attention on the Virgin’s head, the smiling expression of the Christ Child and the sleeping figure of St Joseph. The Virgin is drawn with particular sensitivity. He altered the level of her eyes and established the subtle curves of her lips, nose and chin – its slight dimple already visible in the underdrawing – while also making slight adjustments to the contour of her chin. When painted, the Virgin’s face becomes less elongated than in the underdrawing, the profile of her cheek filled out. The knot of lines around the Virgin’s bodice suggests Beccafumi originally had in mind a different arrangement below her breasts – perhaps a tied sash. Visible in the painted layer, as well as in the underdrawing, are many small revisions, to Joseph’s T-shaped staff, for example, and to the fingers of the Virgin.

The underdrawing of the Christ Child is full of spirited flourishes: short curving lines briskly establish the rotund volumes of the hand; a mass of freely drawn curls crown his head; and changes are made to the contours of the thigh. While in the painted layer Beccafumi conceals the Child’s sex, in the underdrawing it is evident. A later modification is also made to Christ’s feet, the pose of which is adjusted in the finished painting, with the addition of the flexed toes, a distinctively quirky flourish. The head of St Joseph is the most boldly executed, with thick lines circling the eye sockets to define areas of shadow. In the paint layers, St Joseph’s features are formed by contrasts of light and dark with minimal use of colour and the whole takes shape thanks to the deft stroke on the bridge of the nose. Beccafumi adopts a similar approach for his fluently drawn sketches of heads and to some degree for his self-portrait on paper in the Uffizi, Florence.2 

An important reference point for the dating of The Holy Family is the altarpiece representing The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Siena with Saints, painted by Beccafumi for the Gambassi family chapel in the Dominican church of Santo Spirito in Siena, installed there in 1529 and now in the Chigi Saracini Collection, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (fig. 2).3 There are numerous compositional and stylistic similarities between the two, first and foremost, the seated pose of the Christ Child, with ankle tucked under the left leg, which is almost identical to the one depicted here. Two preparatory studies for the Madonna and Child have been connected to the altarpiece, both in the Uffizi, Florence, which adopt the same pose for the Child.4 That Beccafumi should have revisited the pose in this picture of the Madonna for private devotion, suggests his satisfaction with it as a compositional solution.

The curtain in The Holy Family echoes the motif of the baldacchino that crowns the Santo Spirito altarpiece. Constructed with a similar contrasting border, its combination of green and red is inverted here. The putti that hold up the baldacchino foreshadow the smiling Christ in The Holy Family and the classicizing physiognomy of St Catherine of Alexandria, to the far right of the altarpiece, is akin to that of the Virgin in The Holy Family. Worth noting also is Beccafumi’s deft modelling of Joseph’s knarled hand, that recalls those of Saints Peter and St Paul seated in the foreground of the Mystic Marriage. In many stylistic details too there are points of contact between The Mystic Marriage and The Holy Family: Beccafumi’s brilliance is also seen in the flashes of colour that illuminate the Virgin’s sleeves, for example the streak of pink by her right cuff; also in his very particular way of tracing the ridges of folds, with markedly lighter strokes, like a root system spreading over the surface of cloth.

Beccafumi’s manner of handling paint accentuates the subtle nuances of translucent layers and gives the surface a peculiar tactility. There are beautiful passages preserved here, particularly in the hand, nose and eyes of the Child and in the Madonna’s features, as well as her veil and drapery, which is intact and shows the texture of his brushwork. From a colouristic point of view the picture surface is particularly daring, especially in the purples of the Virgin’s veil. The effect of the pink fingers against the pink of her dress is yet another instance of Beccafumi’s idiosyncratic manipulation of colour. Absent from her robes is the cangiantismo often favoured by the artist, though there is perhaps a hint of it in the greenish hues of the shadowy underside of the curtain. Unlike Beccafumi’s early tondo now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, where the Latin inscription on the pages of the devotional book is scrupulously spelt out, the words on the volume held by the Virgin in The Holy Family are mere ciphers, and the whole becomes a virtuoso approximation of black and dark red ink on paper, cast in large part into shadow.5 

Of the numerous pictures of the Madonna and Child painted by Beccafumi for private devotion, ones that adopt the round tondo format were commonly used by the artist. This was a retardataire phenomenon, explicable in part by his interest in Florentine models. A tondo of The Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist, which sold in these Rooms in 2007, shows Beccafumi’s debt to Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo.6

One tondo in particular is worth singling out in relation to The Holy Family: The Holy Family with St John the Baptist and a Donor in the Museo Horne, Florence (fig. 3).7 Obliquely lit, both compositions adopt complex lighting and a compact arrangement of figures set within a stark architectural setting. A date close to The Mystic Marriage has been proposed for it. Of the compositions that adopt a rectangular format comparable to our painting, there is one datable to the second half of the 1520s, in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, on loan from a private collection, of The Holy Family with the Infant St John.8 In pose and in the colouring of the Child it is very similar to this panel. Both compositions adopt a balanced structure and both cast St Joseph into shadow. However, the handling of paint in the Siena panel is tighter than in The Holy Family, suggesting a slightly later date for the latter. For The Holy Family a date soon after The Mystic Marriage, at the very end of the 1520s or early 1530s seems plausible.

At this time Beccafumi was probably working on the fresco decoration of the ceiling of the Sala del Concistoro in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, which was begun around 1529, interrupted around 1531 and later resumed and completed by 1535. In these years he was also painting a major altarpiece, still in situ, for the church of San Niccolò al Carmine, Siena.9 Certainly completed by 1535 when Vasari saw and praised it, if not before, The Fall of the Rebel Angels is a work of tremendous invention and experimentation, its lighting extraordinarily daring and complex. Some of those complexities are evident here, for instance in the backlighting of the figures. Beccafumi’s treatment of landscape in the background of The Holy Family is akin to the bluish hills that are the setting of his predella scenes for the Carmine altarpiece. Two of the five panels that survive from the predella, dismembered in the seventeenth century, are now in The Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh.10 They depict landscapes that in their tonality, tree-type, and rocky setting, resonate profoundly with the view from the window of The Holy Family, adding weight to a dating in the 1530s.  

Although no preparatory drawings can be directly connected to The Holy Family, brief mention should be made of a large drawing in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, that is a detailed study for the head of the Archangel Michael in the altarpiece in San Niccolò al Carmine, Siena.11 The downcast gaze, lines flickering across the eyelashes; the long straight nose and the curve of the lips; the febrile lines of the hair parted in the centre to frame a broad expanse of forehead: together these elements create a facial type that is strongly reminiscent of the Madonna in this painting.

The Holy Family’s early history is obscure but there is evidence that the composition was known, replicated and adapted to a tondo format. In the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a copy of this painting, given to a follower of Beccafumi (fig. 4).12 The source of the design remained unknown until the rediscovery of Beccafumi’s original composition. In spite of its somewhat crude appearance and poor condition, the copy offers interesting points of comparison with Beccafumi’s markedly finer painting. Of similar dimensions to The Holy Family, The Virgin and Child was transferred from panel to canvas in 1904, which accounts in part for its current state. The figure of St Joseph, once positioned in the area beneath the window has since been painted out and there are a number of other differences between the two, for instance in the landscape and in details of the Virgin’s dress. The parts that are least well understood in the copyist’s translation – the hands, for example – are where Beccafumi’s idiosyncracies are most apparent. The copyist also struggled with the complexities presented by more than one light source. The date of the copy is difficult to ascertain but it is likely to be sixteenth-century.

The Holy Family is also connected to a tondo of the same design that appeared on the Florence art market in 1979.13 Its current whereabouts are not known but it may be identifiable as the picture formerly in the Toscanelli collection, at Ponsacco, near Pisa.14 The tondo, which retains the figure of St Joseph, is a derivation from Beccafumi’s rectangular original, as is apparent from the somewhat compressed design and the stiffness of the figures. Sanminiatelli, who was the first to propose a connection for both the Philadelphia picture and the Toscanelli tondo to a lost original datable to the second half of the 1530s, did so without ever seeing this impressive painting.15

It is not known when this painting entered the collection of the present owner's forebear, but it seems likely that it was at the time that the present nineteenth-century gilt-wood Baroque frame was made, or slightly before. The majority of the paintings in the collection were contemporary works by mid-nineteenth-century artists, but there were some Old Masters, almost all of which were however Venetian. The number ‘31’ repeated on the back of the frame and on the cradle has not so far been identified in any handlist or inventory of the collection.

1 Art Access Research

2 H. Chapman in Renaissance Siena Art for a City, ed. L. Syson, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2007, pp. 338–41. For the Uffizi self-portrait, inv. no. 1731, oil on paper, 31.3 x 22.6 cm., see E. Tenducci in P. Torriti et al., Beccafumi, Milan 1998, p. 130, cat. no. P52, reproduced in colour on p. 129.

3 Inv. no. 277 MPS; Torriti 1998, pp. 273–74, cat. nos D66 and D67, reproduced.

4 Inv. nos 19110 F and 19196 F; E. Tenducci in Torriti 1998, p. 273, cat. nos D66 and D67, reproduced, the latter in colour on p. 274.

5 Inv. 33; C. Plazzotta in London 2007, pp. 314–17, reproduced in colour on p. 315.

6 London, Sotheby’s, 5 December 2007, lot 55, for £1,000,000.

7 Inv. no. 6532; oil on panel, D. 80 cm. Torriti 1998, p. 133, cat. no. P54, reproduced in colour on p. 132.

8 Oil on panel, 86.2 x 75 cm. M. Folchi in Torriti 1998, pp. 134–36, cat. no. P57, reproduced in colour on p. 135.

9 Oil on panel, 347 x 225 cm.; Torriti 1998, pp. 139–42, cat. no. P64, reproduced in colour on p. 139.

10 Torriti 1998, pp. 142–43, cat. no. P65 a, b, reproduced in colour.

11 Inv. 9177. Black and red chalk, heightened with white on cream paper, 24.9 x 19.7 cm. D. Cordellier, Domenico Beccafumi, Paris 2009, p. 65, cat. no. 17, reproduced in colour.

12 Bequest of Arthur H. Lea, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1938; inv. 1938-1-43. 71.1 x 53.3 cm. G. Briganti and E. Baccheschi, L’opera completa del Beccafumi, Milan 1977, cat. no. 193, reproduced on p. 111. We are grateful to Dr Carl Strehlke for information on the Philadelphia copy.

13 Panel, D. 81 cm.

14 Baccheschi 1977, under cat. no. 193. Listed as an anonymous 16th- century copy in the Archivio Zeri.

15 D. Sanminiatelli, Domenico Beccafumi, Milan 1967, p. 170.