This beautifully carved and subtle relief of the Virgin and Child represents a new addition to the oeuvre of Gregorio di Lorenzo, now considered one of the foremost sculptors of the Florentine Renaissance.
Formerly referred to as the anonymous 'Master of the Marble Madonnas', a term coined by Wilhelm von Bode in the late 19th century, Gregorio di Lorenzo was an integral member of the core group of sculptors active in 15th-century Florence. His identity was not discovered until scholars at the close of the 20th century, primarily Alfredo Bellandi, began to associate his body of work with one Gregorio who trained in the workshop of Desiderio da Settignano. His diverse oeuvre includes Ecce Homo reliefs, busts of the infant Christ and Saint John, as well as two series of profile reliefs of the Twelve Caesars, which he executed for the courts of Naples and Ferrara. However, earning him his scholarly nickname, Gregorio is best known for his significant output of marble reliefs representing the Virgin and Child, of which examples are held in important public collections such as the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Gregorio emerged directly from the milieu of celebrated Quattrocento Florentine sculptors such as Donatello and Antonio Rossellino, who created highly influential prototypes of the Madonna and Child in relief. In his astonishingly varied but characteristic corpus of reliefs of this type, Gregorio developed a distinctive stylistic language which is clearly expressed in the present relief, allowing for an attribution to the master.
Captured in the act of blessing while holding a bird in His left hand, the Christ Child sits comfortably on the hips of His mother, whose left hand supports the Child’s shoulder while her right hand covers His right foot. The comparatively small size of the relief lends a heightened delicacy and sense of intimacy to the scene, indicating its function within a domestic devotional context.
Stylistically the present composition relates to reliefs by Gregorio thought to have been executed between 1460 and 1470, and thus still in the early stages of his career. The moulded framing of the relief background, and the rosette in the bottom left corner, are frequently seen in similar reliefs by the master. Perhaps the closest comparison for the general composition, though mirror-reversed, is found in an example at the Columbia Museum of Art (Bellandi, op. cit
., no. III 1. 41), which also depicts the Christ Child in the act of blessing while clutching a bird, and exhibits a similar arrangement of the Virgin’s hands. A compelling stylistic resemblance is seen in a relief whose current whereabouts are unknown (ibid
., no. III. 1. 25), particularly in the 'feline' features of the Virgin, characterised by a straight nose and small mouth, the Child’s cheerful expression, and the appearance of the Virgin’s belt. The tenuous folds of the Virgin's drapery, on the other hand, compare to a relief of similarly small dimensions in a private collection in Turin (ibid
., no. III.1.6), while the star pattern on her collar is seen more prominently in an example in Arezzo (ibid
., no. III.1.3). For another closely analogous relief of small dimensions, see the Virgin and Child in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris (inv. no. 1800).
What sets our relief apart is the distinctive appearance of the Christ Child, in particular his highly animated expression and the appearance of His hair, which frames His face in boldly carved ringlets. This embellished hairstyle appears to be unique among Gregorio's reliefs of the Virgin and Child, but is seen in some of his busts, notably the Infant Christ in the Museo di Belle Arti di Budapest (ibid., no. III.5.1), and in a few of his Emperor reliefs (ibid., III.2.1c and III.2.9).
The present relief is therefore a significant, newly discovered work by the master, whose sensitive appeal is enhanced by its precious dimensions and the delicacy of its carving.
A. Bellandi, Gregorio di Lorenzo: Il Maestro delle Madonne in marmo, Morbio Inferiore, 2010
An expertise by Alfredo Bellandi, dated 5 December 2016, is available from the department on request.