From whom acquired by the present owner in 2012.
Seated before a green cloth of honour, tied with a sash of contrasting colour to the trunk of a tree, the Virgin holds the Christ Child as he steps on her thigh, right hand raised in the act of blessing. Rosso offsets the principal figures to create an asymmetrical composition and, in a characteristically unconventional way, gives the greatest prominence to the kneeling figure of Saint Julian, who dominates the foreground while turning his back to the viewer. Julian the Hospitaller was a nobleman, who accidentally slew his parents and then atoned for his crime by setting up a hospice where travellers could find safe lodging; he thus became the patron saint of travellers and of ferrymen and innkeepers. The drawn sword by his knee – its gilt pommel and guard and textured grip beautifully rendered by Rosso – is his attribute. Saint Julian intercedes on behalf of a donor, a soberly dressed young man, presumably his namesake. With his left hand he takes hold of the supplicant’s arm as if introducing him to the Virgin and Child, his gaze fixed on them. Rosso captures the donor in mid-prayer, hands clasped, lips parted; he too directs his gaze at the Virgin and Christ Child. Again Rosso shows his novel approach by reversing the traditional relation between donor and saint. It is Saint Julian, dynamically posed and wearing canonical red, who takes centre stage.
The work bears all the hallmarks of Rosso’s style in the mid- to late 1520s. Most expressive of his highly personal manner is his hatching technique, whereby a mesh of brushstrokes, laid down in a markedly graphic way, renders volume and enlivens the surface. As David Franklin has pointed out, this particular trait is the main marker of Rosso’s authorship but there are other elements, not least the swirling draperies typical of his art, as well as his predilection for certain poses.2 Figures seen from the back and depicted as if about to stand up appear in other compositions of the 1520s. Also the angled pose of the Virgin’s arm that supports the Child recalls similar figures of the Virgin and Child designed by Rosso for an Adoration of the Magi executed by the Umbrian painter Domenico Alfani for the high altar of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Castel Rigone, a small town just north-west of Perugia.3 The latter is Rosso’s first documented work after the Sack of Rome in May 1527; his design is recorded in reverse in an engraving by Cherubino Alberti of 1574. A further characteristic is the distinctive facial type of the Virgin, echoed in some of the female figures in Rosso’s Città di Castello altarpiece completed in 1530.
The dating of this painting is based on stylistic comparisons and in the absence of any documentary evidence cannot be definitive but as David Franklin has pointed out, it ‘has most in common with works of increasing stylistic refinement produced by Rosso in Italy, between 1525 and 1530’.4 In the 2014 exhibition catalogue he narrowed down this time frame and suggested that the painting could date from the period between the Sack of Rome, when Rosso fled first to Perugia and later to Sansepolcro, and 1530, the year of his departure for France. There he established himself at Fontainebleau as one of the principal artists employed by King Francis I to decorate the château. Carlo Falciani concurs with this dating and situates the painting in Rosso’s final period in Italy. In his opinion its colouristic refinement and subtlety of gesture prefigures the changes in the artist’s style at the French court.
As a private devotional painting the Madonna and Child with Saint Julian and a Donor is a rare example of a little-known type in Rosso’s work, which consists mainly of large altarpieces for churches and confraternities, and portraits. Its significance lies not only in having been painted during the artist's last years in Italy but also as a demonstration of Rosso's unique ability to transform traditional iconography into his own innovative vision.
1 Ottawa 2005, p. 190. According to David Franklin, the oldest recorded attribution of the picture to Andrea del Sarto is unfounded.
2 Ottawa 2005, p. 190.
3 D. Franklin, Rosso in Italy, The Italian Career of Rosso Fiorentino, New Haven and London 1994, pp. 157–61.
4 Ottawa 2005, p. 190.
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