This fascinating painting is a second version of Raphael’s celebrated Small Cowper Madonna (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C..). Known as The Peruzzi Madonna since it was first published in the 19th century, the present work is unfinished. The preparatory underdrawing, which is present throughout and in many places is visible to the naked eye, reveals a confidence of draftsmanship and refinement of technique that has led a number of scholars to endorse the attribution to Raphael himself. The panel depicts the Virgin seated on a stone ledge, embraced by the Christ Child, who stands on her lap with his foot resting on her right hand. Behind them, the artist began a verdant landscape set beneath a bright blue sky; only the basic details of the vista have been blocked out. Certain passages of the panel are worked up to a higher degree of finish than others, and it is in these areas – particularly the Christ Child’s torso - that we witness the kind of subtle brushwork and graceful variation of tone that one might expect from the hand of Raphael himself.
The Peruzzi Madonna is identical in scale and overall design to Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna (fig. 1), one of the artist’s most celebrated works from the years he was in Florence (1504-08). There are several, notable compositional changes, however. Whereas in the Washington panel, the Madonna and Child gaze directly at the viewer, in the Peruzzi Madonna Christ looks downward and his mother’s eyelids are nearly closed. The Virgin’s face here is also more oval than in the Small Cowper Madonna. This physiognomy, along with the Madonna’s inclined head, tilted slightly to her right, is much closer to Raphael’s nearly contemporary Madonna del Granduca (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). In particular, both Virgins share the same narrow nose, full lips accented with a slight smile, and gracefully-sloping jawline. The drapery and landscape of the Peruzzi Madonna also display differences relative to the Small Cowper Madonna, although it is difficult to say whether these are due to the former’s unfinished state. Most conspicuously absent in the Peruzzi Madonna is the background architecture, which in the Washington panel is generally believed to have been inspired by the church of San Bernardino outside Urbino. Both paintings are strongly influenced by the innovations of Fra Bartolomeo and Leonardo da Vinci, the latter of whose Mona Lisa (Musée du Louvre, Paris) was presumably the direct source for the Madonna’s elongated right hand. Yet as with all of Raphael’s designs, he is never a mere copyist. Though Leonardo’s composition may have served as an inspirational starting point, Raphael always reinterprets his sources to create something altogether new.
The Small Cowper Madonna – whose modern title derives from its most famous owners, the Earls Cowper, in whose collection it remained from the late-18th through the 19th century – dates to circa 1505 and was painted early in Raphael’s career, during the four years he spent in Florence (1504-08). Like the Peruzzi Madonna, the Washington painting is on a poplar support, which was prepared with a smooth white layer of gesso. To create the compositional design that was used in both of these paintings, following his standard practice, Raphael would have first produced several drawings in which he worked out the figures’ poses and dispositions. Unfortunately, no preparatory drawings for either painting are known to have survived. Once Raphael had refined his composition, he would have produced a final, full-scale drawing known as a cartoon. This cartoon would have then been pricked with a needle or stylus so that the design could be transferred to a panel via pouncing: the cartoon was laid flat against the support and then dabbed with a muslin bag filled with charcoal powder, thus forcing dust through the holes and leaving a pattern of dots on the support that could later be joined together by the artist to replicate the design. In cases where the artist desired to preserve the cartoon, a secondary cartoon, or spolvero could be created by placing another sheet beneath the first cartoon during the pricking process.
Infrared reflectography reveals that the same cartoon was used to block out the underdrawings of both the Small Cowper Madonna and the Peruzzi Madonna (figs. 2 and 3). In the Washington painting, Raphael worked up his underdawing using a dry carbon medium of charcoal or black chalk. In the Peruzzi Madonna, the outlines are rapidly executed in an aqueous pigment. Additional freehand underdrawing is present throughout both paintings. Raphael’s working technique for the Small Cowper Madonna was critically studied by David Alan Brown, following the cleaning and conservation of the painting in the earlier 1980s (D.A. Brown, 'Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna and Madonna of the Meadow: Their Technique and Leonardo Sources', Artibus et Historiae, IV, no. 8, 1983, pp. 9-26). At that time, Brown noted that for the Washington panel, after completing his underdrawing Raphael built up his composition with two distinct paint layers in oil. In the first layer, the young painter blocked out his forms using a more opaque underpaint. He then completed the painting with one or more layers of transparent glazes. For the flesh tones, Brown observed, Raphael used the ground as the base and augmented it with an extremely thin layer of lead white. The same was done for the red drapery, using red glazes, while the landscape elements were built up with a green preparation and heightened with green glazes.
Examination of the Peruzzi Madonna’s infrared reflectogram reveals several features that one associates with Raphael’s underdrawings. First and foremost are the characteristic horizontal and vertical plumb lines, which run down and across the center of the panel. Similar lines are visible in the infrared reflectogram of the Small Cowper Madonna, and were possibly used to center the cartoon on the panel. The curved lines that economically define the volume of the Christ Child’s torso on the Peruzzi Madonna are similarly typical of the artist’s hand, and once again find analogies in the Washington underdrawing. Likewise, the simple demarcation of the knuckles and fingernails on the hands of the Virgin are again indicative of Raphael’s technique, as are the quickly drawn locks of hair of Christ’s head.
As an unfinished devotional panel from Raphael’s Florentine period, the Peruzzi Madonna is best compared to the Esterházy Madonna (fig. 4; Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest). Like the Peruzzi Madonna, the Budapest panel was abandoned during the painting process and left unfinished. The Esterházy Madonna was painted with a combination of tempera and oil, apparently without the use of a cartoon, although a preparatory drawing exists in the Gabinetto dei Disegni (Uffizi, Florence). The figures are only minimally built up in paint, using light colors followed by darker tones in tempera. In its current state, as with the Peruzzi Madonna, much of the Budapest panel’s underdrawing is visible to the naked eye. For the Esterházy Madonna, Raphael sketched out his design using what is likely tin, lead, or silverpoint, rapidly and freely drawing the contours and inner structures of his composition (for a thorough technical analysis of the painting, see A. Fáy, Presentation of the Esterhazy Madonna’s Restoration, http://www.szepmuveszeti.hu/data/cikk/1301/cikk_1301/index.html). Study of the Esterházy Madonna’s infrared reflectogram (fig. 5) confirms that, as with the underdrawing of the Peruzzi Madonna, Raphael only summarily sketches out the forms, without hatching or indications of shadow. At times, his lines appear somewhat ragged due to the unevenness of the unpolished ground layer.
The Peruzzi Madonna was first published by Johann David Passavant in his 1860 Raphael d’Urbin et son père, under his entry for the Small Cowper Madonna, as “un tableau tout à fait semblable, qui cependant ne nous est connu que par un dessin, a dû passer de la succession du duc d’Urbin chez un intendant grand-ducal, nommé Peruzzi, demeurant à Florence. On dit cette peinture très-achevée, mais elle aurait souffert du nettoyage. En 1847, un peintre de Florence avait été chargé de la restaurer” (Paris, 1860, II, p. 26, under no. 23.) The painting was not included in the German historian’s 1839 catalogue (Leipzig), but it does appear in its Italian translation by Gaetano Guasti, Raffaello d’Urbino e il padre suo, Florence, 1889, II, p. 32. Regarding the provenance, it has always been linked with the collection of the Duke of Urbino. This distinguished origin was advocated by both Passavant and George Martin Richter (op. cit., p. 202), although as Bambach notes (op. cit., p. 80, note 47), it remains challenging to prove definitively. Michele Dolci (1724-1803) records that two paintings of the Madonna and Child were in Urbino in 1775 (either the Small Cowper Madonna or the Peruzzi Madonna may have been one of these; see M. Dolci, Distinto ragguaglio delle pitture che si trovano nelle chiese e nei palazzi d’urbino, L. Serra, ed., in Rass. marchigiana, XI (1933), pp. 281-361). If the Peruzzi Madonna was, in fact, one of the paintings listed by Dolci, then it is tempting to identify it as one of the two paintings of the Madonna and Child by Raphael that appear in the 1592 inventory of Lucrezia d’Este, Duchess of Urbino. At least one of these was presented to the Duchess by her father-in-law Guidobaldo II, Duke of Urbino, in 1571 (see J. Shearman, Raphael in Early Modern Sources. 1483-1602, New Haven and London, 2003, p. 1387). As Shearman notes, much of Lucrezia’s collection passed to her confidante, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, Legate to Ferrara, and it is possible that these two paintings may be among the four Madonnas attributed to Raphael in Giovanni Battista Agucchi’s Aldobrandini inventory of 1603.)
According to both Passavant and Richter, the Peruzzi Madonna next entered the collection of a member of the Peruzzi family, presumably a Minister or Steward of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Once again, this part of the provenance has yet to be established beyond a doubt. As the Medici palle were painted directly onto the reverse of the panel, the Peruzzi Madonna presumably became part of their collection at some point, and it should be noted that the Peruzzi family incorporated the Medici palle into their family crest following the wedding of Bindo Simone and Anna Maria Luigia di Averardo di Pietro Paolo de’Medici in 1783. Two large wax seals inscribed “AMMINISTRAZZIONE*GEN*DELLE*REG*RENDETE” also appear on the reverse, indicating that the painting was in the State or Grand Duchy of Tuscany at the end of the 18th century. The Amministrazione generale dell Regie Rendite was created on 26 August 1768 by Pietro Leopoldo I and ended in 1846. Additional seals on the reverse are comparable to coins issued under the regency of Grand Duke Ferdinand III, son of Leopold I, Emperor of Austria. A final seal, dated 1814, and was used in Rome when the papal throne was vacant, thus placing the panel in the Eternal City (or at least the Papal States) in that year. The large initials “SR” that are painted across the upper part of the reverse have yet to be identified.
The Peruzzi Madonna was purchased in France during the first decade of the 20th century by Frank G. Macomber, Sr. of Boston. At that time, the entire panel had been altered with heavy overpaint, which according to Passavant had been applied by a Florentine restorer in 1846 (loc. cit.). It remained in this condition, passing by descent in 1927 to his son, Frank G. Macomber, Jr., and thence to his widow, Mrs. F.G. Macomber, Jr., Mount Kisco, New York. In 1929, the painting was x-rayed and, recognizing the extent of the repainting, the picture was sent to Berlin, where it was restored under the direction of Oskar Fischel by Helmut Moritz Ruhemann, Curator and Principal Restorer to the Berlin State Museum (see G.M. Richter, op. cit., pl. I). The painting was sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, on 2 March 1950. The auction itself was a sensation, drawing an unprecedented 1,200 people to witness the bidding and generating significant attention from the press. The winning bid of $27,500 was placed by Andrew J. Nisbet as a proxy for Gordon Graves, of New York. The painting was underbid by the grandfather of the present owner, who immediately regretted not bidding higher. And in fact, 12 years later, in 1962, he was finally able to acquire the work.
The Peruzzi Madonna once again made headlines a decade later, following the sensational theft of the painting in the early 1970s. In September 1970, the painting was stolen from the Hollywood home of Charles F. Elkins, who had also become a partial owner of the painting. The work was recovered two years later following an extensive sting operation, in which detectives posing as Russian art dealers set up a clandestine meeting with the burglars and arrested them on the spot (fig. 6). In October 1979, the family of the current owner bought out the other investors, becoming sole owners of the painting.
The following art historians have endorsed the attribution to Raphael, without qualification: Johann David Passavant (loc. cit.), Max J. Friedländer (written correspondence, 25 April 1931), Oskar Fischel (written correspondence, 16 April 1936; see also loc. cit.), Hermann Voss (written correspondence, undated), George Martin Richter (loc. cit., suggesting that it predates the Small Cowper Madonna), Frank E. Washburn Freund (loc. cit.), and Arthur K. McComb (written correspondence, 26 March 1962. In May 1949, Richard Offner studied the painting but declared that the extent of overpaint prevented him from making any statement concerning the attribution.
In 2012-15, David Bull and Teresa Longyear restored the painting to its present state, removing the previous campaigns of overpaint, thereby allowing a new generation of scholars to reassess the Peruzzi Madonna. Most recently, Nicholas Penny and Keith Christiansen have examined the picture firsthand and agree that the underdrawing has every appearance of being by Raphael and that it is possible that the painting may also have been begun by the artist. They further believe that it is conceivable that the picture was worked it up to a higher degree of finish than we now see (in this scenario, elements possibly painted by Raphael and later overpainted were accidentally removed during a previous restoration). Penny and Christiansen emphasize that due to the condition, it is difficult to determine the extent of Raphael’s participation in the panel’s painted elements. Notably, no other instances in which Raphael painted the same composition twice are known, and it is therefore all the more significant that the Peruzzi Madonna was left unfinished. One possible scenario to be considered is that someone, after viewing the Small Cowper Madonna, requested Raphael to paint a version for their own collection. Raphael then began to work on this commission, using his preexisting cartoon, but abandoned the project at some point.
Carmen Bambach similarly argues that the Peruzzi Madonna is by Raphael, at least in part, proclaiming the painting to be “an archaeological object of major historical significance” (op. cit., p. 70). Bambach draws particular attention to the presence of freehand overdrawing that is visible to the naked eye but does not correspond to what is seen in the infrared reflectographs. The scholar suggests that this fine drawing appears to have been executed in metalpoint, a technique that Raphael frequently used for his preparatory designs. To Bambach, these metalpoint outlines “seem to correct, or supplement, the dotted outlines obtained from the cartoon that were then painted. In contrast to the paint layers, the quality of execution of these small bits of metalpoint overdrawing seem to me to be of extremely high quality, good enough to be by Raphael himself.” (ibid.). She compares the technique to Raphael’s metalpoint Study for a Child’s Head of c. 1505-6 in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main (fig. 11), a drawing that was previously owned by Johann David Passavant and was used by that scholar as one of the lynchpins for securing the attribution of the Peruzzi Madonna to Raphael (loc. cit.). Bambach further notes that the painted passages of the Christ Child’s body and face, including the nuanced foreshortening of his ear, seem to her to be more refined than other parts of the painting, concluding that “it may well be that Raphael also painted the passages in the Christ Child’s figure that seem of higher quality” (op. cit., p. 72). Accordingly, Bambach hypothetically reconstructs the history of the Peruzzi Madonna as follows: after completing the Small Cowper Madonna (a painting that was begun with a pricked cartoon, then elaborated with additional freehand underdrawing and then completed with paint), Raphael subsequently gave away his cartoon to another artist “who attempted to create from it his own painting. Raphael’s original cartoon first used in the Washington Small Cowper Madonna was probably very schematic, limited to the figural design, without the landscape. Thus, when the painter of the Peruzzi Madonna ran into trouble, he may have turned to Raphael again for assistance, who may have himself corrected the design by redrawing part of it freehand in metalpoint on the upper pigment layer.” (ibid., pp. 72-73). Noting that the Infrared reflectogram of the Peruzzi Madonna reveals a horizontal axis line, a feature frequently found in Raphael’s autograph paintings, she concludes that “The picture may have finally been abandoned, unfinished, as the artist in Raphael’s circle lost confidence in its execution.” (ibid., p. 73).
Citing stylistic similarities to the Northbrook Madonna in the Worcester Art Museum, Bambach tentatively suggests that the parts of the Peruzzi Madonna that were not painted by Raphael were painted by the author of the Worcester panel, who, in Bambach’s opinion, is possibly the Perugian painter, Domenico Alfani (circa 1580-circa 1553). To support this hypothesis, she notes that Raphael often supplied drawings to Alfani to assist him with is commissions, and that Alfani apparently employed Raphael’s cartoon of the Mackintosh Madonna (British Museum, London, inv. 1894,0721.1) or a copy for it, to paint his Madonna and Child at the center of his 1518 altarpiece for the Cappella di San Gregorio Magno in the Sapienza Vecchia, Perugia (today in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia). The London cartoon has been pricked and the outlines of the figures also appear to have been incised with a stylus, indicating that it was used at least on one occasion to transfer the design to another support. The process that Raphael used to transfer his design to the original panel of the Mackentosh Madonna is unknown due to the ruinous condition of the painting (it not only suffered several restoration campaigns, but also was transferred from panel to canvas in the 18th century; see C. Bambach, Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop: Theory and Practice, 1300-1600, Cambridge, 1999, fig. 98). Alfani similarly relied upon a drawing by Raphael for his circa 1509 altarpiece of The Holy Family with Saints John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Zacharia, which Alfani painted with the assistance of Pompeo d’Anselmo for the church of San Simone dei Carmini, Perugia (now Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia). The drawing, executed in pen and brown ink over stylus underdrawing with traces of black chalk and squared in red chalk, is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille (inv. 459), and on its verso bears instructions written by Raphael to Alfani asking him to, among other things, press Atalanta Baglioni for payment for his Entombment (Galleria Borghese, Rome; see J. Shearman, op. cit., p. 111, no. 1507-08/1).
An alternative attribution, advocated by other scholars who independently viewed the Peruzzi Madonna and its infrared reflecogram in 2018, is that Raphael gave his cartoon to a close associate, who employed it to create the Peruzzi Madonna without further intervention from Raphael himself. Potential candidates for this collaborator are, in addition to Domenico Alfani, Eusebio da San Giorgio (1465/70-after 1539) and Berto di Giovanni (d. 1529).