This enchanting group of the Virgin and Child with two putti is among the most important bronzes attributed to Nicolò Roccatagliata to come to the market. Significantly, it represents an addition to the relatively small religious oeuvre of a sculptor who is primarily known for his playful bronze statuettes of putti and mythological subjects.
Nicolò Roccatagliata was born in Genoa around 1560 and entered the workshop of the silversmith Agostino Groppo at a young age. Having trained also with his son, Cesare, Nicolò moved to Venice sometime before 1594, when he was commissioned to execute bronze figures and sconces for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Nicolò is thought to have remained in Venice for the remainder of his career, probably as the master of a substantial workshop that included his talented son, Sebastian Nicolini. Sebastian became an eminent bronze sculptor in his own right and, before his father's death, frequently collaborated with him on commissions. This is evidenced by their joint signature on the large-scale antependium relief dated 1633 in the Venetian church of San Moisè.
Nicolò Roccatagliata's style was strongly informed by the Venetian Mannerist aesthetic and has much in common with the work of his contemporaries, Alessandro Vittoria and Tiziano Aspetti. Among the characteristic traits of the Roccatagliata workshop are heavy, half-closed eyelids, slightly upturned noses, and sweetly upturned corners of the mouth. While the styles of Nicolò and his son are almost indistinguishable, it may be observed that Nicolò seems to have favoured a more precise and angular style of drapery in his figures. However many of the numerous utilitarian bronzes, putti, and other figures attributed to Roccatagliata are likely in fact the products of his son or his workshop.
The attribution of the present bronze to Nicolò Roccatagliata rests largely on a comparison with one of the few securely documented bronzes modelled by the sculptor. His group of the standing Virgin and Child at the musée national de la Renaissance in Écouen (inv. no. C1.13.272), signed NICOLLIN.F., shows, as Claudia Kryza-Gersch has pointed out, a 'more serious side' to the sculptor than his large oeuvre of putti might suggest (op. cit., p. 113). At almost a metre high, it exudes an air of majesty, while also exhibiting some of the sensuous sweetness that is so typical of the master's faces. Despite this, the Écouen group is arguably more restrained than the sculptor's other major religious figures, including the bronze Saints Stephen and George in San Giorgio Maggiore, which combine the solemnly devout with an almost rococo playfulness in style and posture.
The present Virgin and Child with two putti retains the Écouen Virgin's sense of monumentality while adding a charming level of human interaction to the scene. The Virgin gazes lovingly at Her child, who seems to be offering His orb to two baby cherubs playing at His feet. One touches His left foot, while the other gnaws tenderly on His right. With Her slightly open mouth, the Virgin appears engaged in conversation, perhaps scolding the putti for their mischievous behaviour. The subject alludes to the virtue of Charity, whose iconography typically showed a mother with three infants. Interestingly the putti, which correspond to the full-haired, chubby Roccatagliata type, differ in appearance from the Christ Child, whose sacred status is underlined through more angular features and a more modest hairstyle. The Virgin's features and gaze, as well as the positioning of the Christ Child, find another convincing comparison in the seated Virgin and Child attributed to Roccatagliata at the Metropolitan Museum (inv. no. 10.185).
It is not only the sophistication of its composition and its stylistic correspondence with the Écouen Virgin that indicate a production of the present bronze under Nicolò Roccatagliata's close supervision. The casting of the bronze is of fine quality and compares favourably with many of the less finished Roccatagliata workshop casts. Though it is likely that the bronze base with the arms of the Da Legge family is associated, one may assume that the group formed part of a prestigious private commission, perhaps to adorn the altar of a Venetian family chapel.
H. R. Weihrauch, Europäische Bronzestatuetten, 15.-18. Jahrhundert, Braunschweig, 1967, pp. 161-167; C. Kryza-Gersch, 'New Light on Nicolò Roccatagliata and his son Sebastian Nicolini', Nuovi Studi, vol. 5, 1998, anno III, pp. 111-126 and pls. 192-230; M. Leithe-Jasper and P. Wengraf (eds.), European Bronzes from the Quentin Collection, exh. cat. The Frick Collection, New York, Milan, 2004, pp.102-107