This extraordinarily refined painting on copper is a reprise of a subject first treated by Ludovico in a celebrated canvas now in the Rijksmuseum generally dated circa 1584. The Vision of Saint Francis, a subject taken from the Annales Minorum, is based on the witness of a monk, who, finding the hut of Saint Francis empty, went out into the countryside to discover the saint kneeling and being offered the Christ Child by the Virgin Mary. The subject enjoyed considerable popularity in post-Tridentine Italy, being painted by Annibale Carracci and Guercino among others, and shows a departure from the type of devotion to Saint Francis current in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The atmospheric nocturnal mood, the naturalism of Ludovico's description of an earthly landscape seen by moonlight, as well as the divine vision of putti straining as they part the clouds to reveal the Blessed Virgin Mary exemplify the agenda of post-Tridentine painting and the Carracci reform. Pepper (see above) comments 'the nearness of the Virgin to the Saint is an expression of the touching proximity of man to God which is at the heart of Ludovico's work'.
This is one of about sixteen paintings on copper produced by Ludovico during his career. Copper as a support became popular in the late sixteenth century and while often associated with Northern artists such as Adam Elsheimer and Paul Bril, it was also frequently used by Emilian painters, including the Carracci, Reni, Guercino and Domenichino. This painting may be compared to one of the most beautiful of all of Ludovico's small-scale devotional paintings, also on copper, an Annunciation, in the Palazzo Rosso, Genoa which Brogi dates to circa 1602-1604. The palpable mysticism, intensified by the nocturnal background, brings into high relief the ecstatic drama of the moment in both works and shows a radical departure from the pure naturalism of the Rijksmuseum Vision painted about twenty years before. Moreover, the brilliant palette of the draperies, their broad, sculpted folds adn the profile of Gabriel in the one and the Virgin in our painting show Ludovico's embrace of a fully-developed classicism. Despite this, Whitfield, Feigenbaum and Bohn have all dated the picture circa 1585-90. Brogi, however, dates this copper to c.1602-1604, comparing it to the Genoa Annunciation and to the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, which displays evident parallels to the present lot in the profile of the Virgin and the treatment of the hands and draperies. 'The enameled luminosity of the color', he writes, 'notwithstanding the nocturnal ambience, the exquisite drawing and above all the totally idealised delicacy of the forms and even more of the sentiment lead one to a much later dating [than previously thought], and place this work in the middle of of the most decisively classicising phase of Ludovico's career'.
A preparatory drawing for this painting is in the Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford (fig. 1) and a another version of the painting, considered by Brogi to be a copy, is in a private collection, Italy.