This arresting depiction of the Madonna teaching the Christ Child to read is a rare work by Carlo Portelli. Notwithstanding the fact that only about twenty paintings by him survive, Portelli had an active career in Florence alongside his Mannerist contemporaries Pontormo, Bronzino, Francesco Salviati, and Rosso Fiorentino.
The subject originated in the popular 13th-century devotional text, The Meditations on the Life of Christ, which narrated a number of episodes not recounted in the Bible and served as a frequent source of artistic inspiration during the Renaissance. The story, which lends itself to affectionate imagery, is here represented with unusual tenderness: the Christ Child, blond curls bouncing over his forehead, turns his gaze up towards the Madonna with obvious eagerness for approval, his mouth open as if reading aloud. He points excitedly to a word in an opened book, whose pages are edged with gold and bound in leather. The Madonna, her hair falling in soft waves with Michelangelesque braids pulled back at her temples, holds the child protectively near to her chest, gazing thoughtfully at the viewer.
Trained in the Florentine workshop of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483-1561), Portelli developed a style that combined Ghirlandaio's conservative High Renaissance idiom with the extravagant, elegant inventions and bright colors of the new generation of Mannerist artists whose work flowered in Florence shortly before 1520. The large, rounded eyes of the Madonna and Child as well as their elongated proportions reveal the influence of Pontormo, while the Madonna's elegant proper left hand, which effortlessly supports the book she is holding against her wrist, recalls Parmigianino. Though the Christ child twists in his mother's arms with serpentine grace, the Madonna's sculptural fixity and unwavering gaze hark back to the work of Ghirlandaio. This relative proximity to the style of Portelli's teacher suggests that the present Madonna teaching the Christ Child to read belongs to the early part of the artist's career, c. 1535.
As recounted by Giorgio Vasari, Portelli's early activity often included collaborations with Francesco Salviati, most notably the decorations they produced in 1539 for the wedding of Cosimo I de' Medici to Eleonora of Toledo and, later, for the wedding of Francesco I de' Medici to Joanna of Austria in 1565. In the last years of his career, c. 1570-1573, he contributed a Neptune and Amphitrite to the famed studiolo of Francesco I de' Medici.
Though he worked most closely with Salviati, Portelli clearly absorbed the stylistic innovations of Pontormo as well as those of Rosso Fiorentino, whose influence remained important throughout Portelli's career. The present work, in fact, was long ascribed to Rosso, and appears with that attribution in the catalogue of the Holford Collection at Dorchester House on Park Lane, London, where the present painting hung for many years. Robert Staynor Holford's collection, including works by Andrea del Sarto, Perugino, Raphael, and Titian, as well as the present Madonna teaching the Christ Child to read, passed to Staynor's son, Sir George Lindsay Holford, who added to the collection until its eventual dispersal at his estate sale at Christie's in 1927.
The present painting was first recognized as a work by Carlo Portelli in 2010 by Dott. Pierluigi Carofano on the basis of photographs. We are grateful to Everett Fahy for endorsing the attribution of the present picture, as well as the date of c. 1535, based on firsthand inspection.