The subject of this exquisite panel is based on a passage in John (20:17), which recounts the Resurrected Christ appearing before Mary Magdalene. At first, she thinks he is a gardener, but when she recognizes him and falls at his feet he instructs her not to touch him. Here, Christ carries a banner with the sign of the cross, symbolizing his triumph over death. Mary, her curly red-blond hair falling in waves over her shoulders, has just made her discovery and dropped to her knees before the Redeemer. The scene takes place in an elegant Italian villa garden surrounded by a crenellated wall and adorned with typically Florentine architectural decorations in pietra serena. A stately row of cypress trees rises up at right, and in the background, a pergola adorned with blooming vines stands out against the gentle glow of a spring sunset.
One of the most important painters active in Florence in the second half of the 16th century, Alessandro Allori was the pupil and adopted son of Bronzino and the father of Cristofano Allori, the distinguished Florentine painter of the early Baroque period. Alessandro's work reveals a deep respect for the bel disegno of the masters of the golden age of Florentine art, including Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto and, of course, Bronzino. His style, however, incorporates a variety of contemporary influences and his landscapes in particular may reflect firsthand knowledge of Northern painters such as Paul Bril.
After an early sojourn in Rome from 1554-1560, during which he studied antique statuary and the works of Michelangelo, Allori returned to Florence and became a favored artist of the Florentine elite. His paintings for the prestigious Salviati, cousins of the Medici, include mythological panels at Alamanno Salviati's villa at Ponte alla Badia, near Florence, and fresco decorations for Jacopo Salviati's Florentine palazzo as well as for his family chapel in the monastery of San Marco. Allori also frequently painted for the Medici; his frescoes in the Salone Grande of the family villa at Poggio a Caiano, near Florence, comprise his most important secular commission, and his iconic Pearl Fishers of 1570-1571, which decorates the western wall of Francesco de' Medici's studiolo in the Palazzo Vecchio, remains one of the most memorable images of the Florentine maniera.
The present picture was first published in in 1872, when it was still a part of the Borghese collection, as 'an important work in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, where one sees Christ portrayed as a gardener holding a vessel before the kneeling Magdalen, depicted as a gentlewoman with a beautiful head and a languid expression, wearing a lace collar and shawl' (Meyer, loc. cit.). Nearly fifty years later, Carlo Gamba saw the Noli me tangere in the collection of Count Volpi of Misurata in Rome. Gamba extolled the panel's 'delightful' qualities, pointing out the dignified serenity of the sacred figures and marveling at the soft evening light which envelops them:
'Calmo e nobilmente misurato nel gesto e nei severi drappeggi, che oramai rivestono d'austerità le sacre figure si manifesta l'Allori nel deliziosio Noli me tangere del Conte Volpi di Misurata del 1590, ove Christo e la Maddalena circonfusi di luce vespertina spiccano nel fondo cupo d'un classico giardino con archi e alberi contro il chiarore del cielo.' ['A calmness and noble restraint in gesture and in the severe garments, which enhance the austerity of the sacred figures, are manifested by Allori in the delightful Noli me tangere of 1590 owned by the Count Volpi of Misurata, in which Christ and the Magdalene are surrounded by evening light, set off out against the dark background of a classical garden with arches and trees before the glowing sky.'] (loc. cit.).
None of the scholars who subsequently published the picture had the opportunity to see it in person: Venturi (1933) and Berti (1953) relied on Gamba's black and white photograph, and in her 1991 catalogue raisonné on Allori, Giovannoni listed it as lost. Understandably, these scholars repeated Gamba's misreading of the date, which current examination has revealed to be '99', thus placing the panel nine years later than traditionally thought. As such, this recently rediscovered Noli me tangere provides valuable insight into Allori's most mature phase.
As Giovannoni notes, after 1580 Allori began to move away from the example of Bronzino, developing the highly refined, polished mode of his final years, in which the elegance of his figures and the intensity of their relationships became increasingly accentuated, often to great poetic effect (op. cit., p. 262). Two other versions of the Noli me tangere subject by Allori survive: a canvas of similar composition in the Confraternita della Misericordia, Arezzo, recorded as having once been dated 1584 (fig. 1; see Giovannoni, op. cit. no. 97), and a fresco of the mid-1580s from a series of scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene in the Palazzo Salviati, Florence (see Giovannoni, op. cit., no. 70). The present work is Allori's last known treatment of the subject, and typical of his most serenely spiritual mature paintings: crisply delineated as tangible presences, Mary and Christ at the same time evoke the sort of grace appropriate to holy figures. With the glow of a cruciform halo emanating behind him, Christ reaches out to bless Mary with an almost Baptismal gesture. Their gazes are imbued with remarkable intensity: lost in mutual contemplation, they seem indifferent to the loveliness of their surroundings, which unfold toward a radiant pink and blue sky behind, enhancing the poetry of the moment.
The importance of landscape evident in the present picture is characteristic of Allori's most mature works--those datable to after 1590--which reflect his developing interest in Flemish and Venetian painting. Several paintings from the last years of the artist's life demonstrate this new emphasis on richly described naturalistic backgrounds, including the Sacrifice of Isaac of 1601 in the Uffizi, Florence; the Christ in the House of Mary and Martha of 1605 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (fig. 2); and the St. Jerome in Penitence of 1606 in the Princeton University Art Museum. The prominence of the landscape in the present work is especially notable in light of the drawing upon which it was based (fig. 3), which was made some ten years earlier in preparation for a series of overdoor tapestries with scenes from the New Testament, woven between 1588 and 1598. While the drawing, and the tapestry for which it served as a design, repeat the general contours of the background, the landscape setting in the present panel is enhanced with myriad rich details and infused with the subtle tonality of approaching twilight.
The Noli me tangere has an illustrious provenance: from at least 1872 it was part of the celebrated Borghese collection in Rome, housed in the magnificent Villa Borghese outside the Porta Pinciana. In the spring of 1892 it was sold, along with the contents of the Villa Borghese. The entry in the auction catalogue, in which the correct date of 1599 is indicated, reads:
'La Madeleine et Jésus Christ. Madeleine agenouillée, ses cheveux blonds dénonés retombant sur les épaules, vêtue d'une robe brune et d'un manteau vert, contemple avec admiration Notre-Seigneur qui debout et tenant une bannière à longue hampe dans la main gauche, lève le bras vers elle; robe rouge et manteau bleu. Un jardin avec berceau, entouré de murs crénelés, et des collines à l'horizon, forment le fond. Tableau d'un beau caractère et d'une grande finesse d'exècution; signè et datge: = NEL. A. M. D. 99 = ALESSANDRO BRONZINO = ALLORI DIPINGEVA.'
By the early 20th century, the Noli me tangere had entered the collection of Giuseppe Volpi, 1st Count of Misurata, a diplomat and Italy's leading industrialist. Often referred to as the 'Last Doge', Volpi served as Italy's Finance Minister from 1925-1928, successfully negotiating Italy's First World War debt repayments to the United States and England. Among other achievements, he was Chairman of the Venice Biennale and founder, in 1932, of the Venice Film Festival. He and his wife, the Countess Nathalie Volpi di Misurata, were pillars of contemporary Roman and Venetian society, hosting magnificent annual balls at their palaces in Rome and Sabaudia that were attended by guests from Cole Porter to Winston Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. By wish of Pope John XXIII, Count Volpi was buried in the basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, one of the greatest churches in the city. The Palazzo Volpi in Rome, where the present picture was housed, overlooks the city and the once-Royal gardens from 15,000 feet of terraces and five floors. It was built in the 17th century by the architect Alessandro Specchi, who also designed the Spanish Steps in Rome.
(fig. 1) Alessandro Allori, Noli me tangere, Confraternita della Misericordia, Arezzo.
(fig. 2) Alessandro Allori, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Photo Credit : Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY.
(fig. 3) Alessandro Allori, Noli me tangere, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.