Signed and dated 1583, this serene devotional image of the Blessed Virgin is the earliest known representation of the subject by Scipione Pulzone, one of the most esteemed artists active in Rome in the second half of the 16th century. Pulzone began his career as a painter of portraits, and by the mid-1570s had established himself as the preeminent portraitist in the city. Pulzone was also among the most important exponents of Counter-Reformation art of his generation, painting religious subjects in which late maniera artifice and complexity are eschewed in favor of narrative clarity, simplicity, and greater realism. Purified of extraneous detail and straightforward in presentation, this graceful image of the Blessed Virgin perfectly exemplifies what Zeri described as Pulzone's arte senza tempo--art without time--a timeless art of which the principal goal is to inspire prayer and religious devotion.
In exceptionally fine condition, the present painting is also notable for its subtle and harmonious palette, in which the Virgin's delicate, transparent white veil serves to link the warm tones of her lips and border of her tunic with the cool, luminous blue of the mantle framing her face. The hooded mantle closely recalls a maphorion, the garment worn by the Virgin in Byzantine icons, in which there was a renewed interest among collectors in post-Tridentine Rome (Acconci, op. cit., p. 93). The brownish-yellow background also approximates the gold leaf backgrounds of Byzantine icons, further underscoring the link to the ancient tradition of the imago Virginis and the picture's function as an instrument of spiritual elevation (Gandolfi, op. cit., p. 303).
The intimate scale of the picture suggests that it was meant to be seen from close range in the private chamber of its commissioner, who, Acconci has suggested, was likely an eminent prelate (op. cit., p. 96).
Although few such images of the Virgin by Pulzone survive today, early inventories suggest that many were part of important private collections, among them that of the Franciscan Francesco Gonzaga (1586-1612), bishop of the Order of the Frati Minori, and the Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan, Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), a leading Catholic reformer and the author of De Pitura Sacra (1624), in which he laid out the rules artists should follow in creating sacred art (ibid.). Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549-1627), the great patron of Caravaggio and perhaps the most important art collector in Rome of his time, owned two, which were listed in an inventory drawn up on his death in 1627. The first, "Una Testa di una Madonna di mano di Scipione Gaetano con Cornice d'Ebano," is somewhat larger than the present work, but an identification with the second--of which the dimensions closely coincide--is tantalizing: "Una testa d'una Madonna di mano di Scipione gaetano con Cornice Indorate alta palmi uno, et ¾" (A. Dern, op. cit., p. 126). While the early history of the picture has yet to be securely determined, the first notice of it was in 1909, when, according to a label on the reverse, it was purchased from the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, where it had been attributed to Guercino.