In this rare work by Nosadella, one of the most distinctive and innovative of the Bolognese Mannerist artists, the Holy Family, Saint Jerome and the young John the Baptist are compressed into a tight setting defined by cool stone walls, creating the kind of horror vacui for which the artist is so well known. Connected by intense glances, the figures exude energy and display a sculptural monumentality indebted to Michelangelo and his Florentine Mannerist followers. The vibrant palette of blues, reds and yellows is similarly inspired by the Roman Maniera, yet the composition’s naturalistic quality reflects the painter’s Emilian origins. In the foreground, the young Saint John the Baptist engages the viewer, pointing behind him at the Savior. Particularly moving is the goldfinch delicately poised on Christ’s arm, its tether carefully balanced on Joseph’s thumb. As a favorite pet of children in this period, the bird reflects Christ’s humanity, but it also acts as a reminder of his future sacrifice. Indeed, according to legend, the bird acquired the scarlet stain on its head when it was splashed with Christ’s blood after removing a thorn from the Saviour’s forehead during his journey to Calvary. The goldfinch’s relationship to the Passion is clearly underscored here thanks to the artist’s choice of aligning the bird with the ivory figure of the Crucified Christ held by Saint Jerome at Mary’s eye level. Bezzi must have found the figure of the Madonna, whose arm dramatically stretches across the panel as she embraces her son, particularly satisfying - he used the same cartoon, or at least the same design, for the figure of Mary in his Holy Family with Saint Catherine in the National Museum of Art of Romania, Bucharest, for which there is a drawing in black chalk in the Staedel Museum, Frankfurt (see H. Voss, “Giovanni Francesco Bezzi, genannt Nosadella”, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorisches Instituts in Florenz, 1932, II, 8, p. 455). She appears again in a panel of the Madonna and Child by the artist that sold at Phillips, London, 11 December 1990, lot 88.
Giovanni Francesco Bezzi was born in Bologna sometime during the early 1530s. What little we know about his life mostly comes from Carlo Cesare Malvasia, who writes in his Felsina pittrice (Bologna, 1678) that the painter’s nickname was taken from the name of the street where he lived. Bezzi matriculated as a painter at the Compagnia delle Quattro Arti in 1549, but we have no word of his career prior to 1558, when he was commissioned to paint decorations for a frieze in the house of Senator Camillo Bolognetti. These paintings do not survive, though Malvasia records that their subject was, fittingly, the history of Camillo. Concerning Bezzi’s style, Malvasia tells us, 'those few works by him that are known - and they are mostly frescos – are distinguished by their good color, as with his master [Tibaldi] and are full of erudition. If they are not as perfect and studied [as those of Tibaldi], they are perhaps more powerful, singular, and resolute' (English translation from The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 147). Alongside Girolamo Mirola, Bezzi was apprenticed to Pellegrino Tibaldi, whose extravagant style must have had a profound influence on the young painter. Only two of the paintings Malvasia ascribes to Bezzi’s hand survive, namely the Madonna and Child with the Blessed Raniero and Saints Peter, Paul and Jerome in the Oratorio dei Battuti in the church of Santa Maria della Vita, painted in 1563, and the Circumcision of Christ in church of Santa Maria Maggiore, the latter of which was completed by Prospero Fontana following Bezzi’s death in 1571.