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Pintoricchio, a Borgia pope, and the detective story of a Madonna’s face

by Andrea Carli

A never before-seen fragment by Bernardino Betto, known as Pintoricchio, is on show for the first time in Rome at the Capitoline Museums. It’s a magnificent Madonna, whose identity has elated scholars for centuries, re-discovered after 500 years and put on display for the first time. The painting is a way of looking at the marvellous art and mischievous court stories of 15th-century Rome.

Pinturicchio is one of the most brilliant artists of Italian Renaissance. The subject, Madonna Enthroned with Child and a kneeling donor -- widely popular and found throughout Christian art from Byzantine era -- was often tackled by the painter.

But this time, behind the painting lies a detective story: Who was the model for this particular Madonna?

According to a rumor spread in the late 15th-century in Rome, this Madonna’s face is the face of an adolescent mistress and lover of Pope Alexander VI: Giulia Farnese (1475-1524).

According to legend, the Madonna hung on the walls of Pope’s Apartment in Vatican, painted by Pintoricchio.

The painting depicts a Virgin blessing with Child, and at their feet an adoring Pope. But the work, for the presumed presence of Giulia Farnese as the figure of Our Lady, caused infinite scandals. The adulterous affair between the Pope and the beautiful Giulia weighed on the image of Roman Curia at the time, which Girolamo Savonarola pounced on. The painting was first covered, then torn from the walls, finally dispersed in two fragments.

The exact composition of the painting, however, did not disappear thanks to a copy made in 1612 by the painter Pietro Fachetti.

The pictorial cycle was censored and removed under the pontificate of Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi, 1655-1667). The two pictures of the Virgin and Child, now two paintings of their own, became part of the private collection of Chigi, while the portrait of Alexander VI disappeared definitively.

Today, more than five hundred years later and thanks to the willingness of the owners of the works, for the first time the two fragments are next to each other: that of the Virgin's face, never exposed until now, along with the well-known one of the Child Jesus. An ideal recomposition, the result of long study, research, comparisons and insights.

Don Rodrigo Borgia, nephew of Pope Callixtus III, rose to the papal throne with the name Alexander VI on August 11, 1492 (a month later Columbus crossed the ocean and discovered the New World). One of the most influential men in 15th-century, he was a controversial pontif.

In Rome the arts and humanities flourished during his reign, because he called artists to Rome to decorate his new apartment in the Vatican. Pintoricchio was one of them. The painter was capable of tackling all the main elements of 15th-century Italian painting: linear perspective, landscapes, history painting, vault and ceiling decoration. The painter would reach fame through the fresco cycle in the Borgia Apartment in the Apostolic Palace.

(Pintoricchio, the painter of Borgia family, Rome, Capitoline Museums, up to September 10)