This beautifully preserved picture is a key component of the distinguished group of pictures in which the young Domenichino, who had arrived in Rome from Bologna in 1602, expresses his homage to the mature work of Annibale Carracci. It is also one of the four dated pictures of 1603 by the artist which establish the point de départ for his own artistic and intellectual trajectory, and thus a significant work in the sequence in which Domenichino projected himself as Carracci's natural successor as the prime exponent of the classical tradition in Roman painting.
Of Domenichino's pictures based on prototypes by Annibale, the earliest is perhaps the Susanna and the Elders, on panel but also dated 1603, in the Doria Pamphili Collection, Rome. Spear dates the Louvre Madonna del Silenzio to circa 1605, the Edinburgh Adoration of the Shepherds to circa 1607-8 and a further, lost, Pietà, to circa 1611-2 (Spear, 1982, nos. 8, 20, 30 and 40).
The prototype in this case was Annibale's monumental Pietà with Saint Francis in the Louvre (D. Posner, no. 136). This would seem to have been begun in circa 1602-3, but only completed in 1607, as it must be the significant picture which Annibale 'ha fatto per il sig. Cardinale' [Cardinal Farnese, who evidently intended the picture for the Mattei Chapel of S. Francesco a Ripa], that is mentioned in a letter of 4 July by Giovanni Battista Agucchi, a strong advocate of both Carracci and Domenichino, who considered the picture 'per avventura la più rara e perfetta che [Carracci] fin a questo punto abbia dipinto a olio'. Despite Agucchi's enthusiasm for the altarpiece, Annibale may well have largely delegated its execution of this to assistants. Posner (1971) argued that the Yarborough picture might reflect the Louvre picture in the state to which this had progressed in 1603, and suggested that the figure of Joseph of Arimathea on the left, was replaced in that work by the Saint Francis when the decision to place the picture at S. Francesco a Ripa was made. However, when the Louvre picture was x-rayed in 1994, it emerged that there was no trace of a corresponding figure of Joseph of Arimathea under the Saint Francis and the composition drawing in the Musée Janisch at Vevey, published in 1997, adumbrates the definitive composition. One must therefore assume that Domenichino, who in other 'copies' such as the Edinburgh Adoration of the Shepherds, may have taken some liberties with Carracci's prototypes, wanted to supply a Pietà of more orthodox iconography: this view was advanced by Loire (1996) and followed by Carey, Bora and Madrizzani, and by Pepper, whose suggestion that the change was prompted 'by the need to make it [the present picture] more saleable' seems unduly cynical.
Spear (1982, II, p. 131) comments on distinctions of detail and interpretation between this and the Louvre picture:
One especially notes the transformation of the emotional state of the Virgin... from Annibale's tragically bereaved woman to a quieter, more sentimental mourner. The vigour of his [Annibale's] brush work yields to a prettier surface, and a clarity of parts tends to emphasise discrete elements at the expense of the unity in the prototypes.
Further differences between the pictures may be noted: the height of the composition is reduced and Domenichino introduced the silhouetted plants on the bluff about the Virgin's raised hand; he also altered the detail of the tree on the left; the lower left fold of the Virgin's mantle is Domenichino's invention, for in the altarpiece this is blocked from view by Saint Francis's habit; the relationship of the nails to the Virgin's foot and that of the putto on the left is changed; and the gold border of the Magdalen's mantle is relatively narrower. While Domenichino omits the minor breaks in the plinth against which the Virgin rests, deft strokes imply a similar irregularity at its upper edge. In one respect he clarified the structure of Carracci's grouping: light falls behind Christ's lowered right arm to silhouette this against the face of the putto. Although Domenichino does not diminish the anguish expressed by either of the putti, he does, rather characteristically, suppress their tears. None of these alterations compares in significance with Domenichino's substitution of Joseph of Arimathea for Carracci's Saint Francis, and the associated introduction of the urn he holds. Although similar in character to the Elders in the Doria Susanna, the Joseph takes its place among Domenichino's earlier inventions. The figure also materially alters the composition, and indeed subtly changes the balance of this. Moreover Carracci's lapidary colour in no way restricted the young Domenichino, whose instinctive chromatic taste is so brilliantly demonstrated in his interpretation of Carracci's noble but austere prototype.
Posner comments that the Yarborough picture 'fits stylistically' with the Christ at the Column and the Doria Susanna and the Elders, both also dated 1603, noting that no other of Carracci's pupils dated pictures in Roman numerals as Domenichino did, so helpfully, at this time. Meticulous in execution and wonderfully sustained in colour, the picture exemplifies the qualities that for over two centuries established Domenichino's place among the handful of most esteemed old masters.
There are numerous copies of the S. Francesco a Ripa altarpiece. An old copy of the this picture was in a private collection, Monaco (42.33 x 45.57 cm.; photograph in the Louvre dossier).
The earliest recorded owner of the picture was a prominent Huguenot, George Aufrère (1715-1801). His family came from Poitou, but left France as a result of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. His grandfather, George Aufrère, a procureur of the Paris Parliament, fled to Holland: his father, Israel Antoine (1671-1758), came to England, where he was a chaplain to William of Orange at the Chapel Royal and minister of the French congregation at the Savoy. George Aufrère, Israel's younger son, became a successful linen draper working in partnership with Sir William Smith and other prominent city merchants. He held the remunerative post of Commissioner for the Sale of French Prizes in 1756-64, the period of the Seven Years War, and was a director of London Assurance from 1761 until 1777, by when he had apparently largely withdrawn from his business activities. In 1746 he married Arabella Bate, daughter of William Bate of Fosten Hall, Derbyshire, and niece of a customer, Hannah, wife of Brownlow Cecil, 8th Earl of Exeter; and as a result of this connection he was Member of Parliament for Exeter's borough of Stamford in 1765-74. Aufrère became a determined collector of pictures. His patron and cousin by marriage, Brownlow, 9th Earl of Exeter, took notes of Aufrère's pictures in 1775, and, if the collector's obituary in the Monthly Magazine in 1804 is correct, Sir Joshua Reynolds -- who painted a celebrated portrait of Aufrère's daughter, Sophia, who married Charles Anderson Pelham in 1774 but died in 1786 -- remarked that the collection 'contained a greater variety of pieces by the first masters of the Italian, Dutch, French and Flemish schools than any other Private Collection in England'. The collection was housed at Walpole House by the Chelsea Hospital. A printed catalogue was prepared; the catalogue has been thought to be of circa 1800 and certainly post-dates 23 January 1772, as it includes a Tempesta moonlight landscape purchased (lot 91) at Christie's then. But the evidence of the manuscript addition to it of the present picture suggests that the catalogue may in fact predate Lord Exeter's record of this in the collection in 1775: another addition was Batoni's modello for The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, sold at Christie's, 4 February 1779, lot 55.
How close a personal interest Aufrère took in his collection was suggested by the room order of the catalogue. This begins with 'Mr Aufrère's Dressing Room'. Here there were originally twenty-one pictures, though Aufrère himself 'parted with' three of these, as later annotations show. Most of the pictures were Italian, notable exceptions being a portrait then given to Rembrandt and Sittow's Assumption of the Virgin, then believed to be by Dürer. There followed the Back Dressing Room with fifteen Italian pictures and a portrait of Louise de la Vallière. The circuit continued in the Ante Room, with twenty pictures, including a Christ attributed to Leonardo, and the Dining Room, with twenty-nine, including many seicento works by such artists as Guercino and Rosa, an exquisite Bacchiacca -- then thought to be by Raphael -- and two late Veroneses, to which the Domenichino was subsequently added. In the Withdrawing Room there were twenty-eight pictures including some of the larger works in the collection. Twenty-five evidently smaller pictures were in the Cabinet between the Drawing Rooms. Additional pictures were placed in the Passage to the China Closet and the Tapestry Room.
While not all the attributions recorded in the catalogue have stood the test of time, the collection was, in fact, of remarkably consistent quality. Aufrère also acquired, at Reynolds' posthumous sale in 1792 Bernini's Neptune and Tritan (London, Victoria and Albert Museum). On the death of Aufrère's widow in 1804, the collection passed to her son-in-law, Charles Anderson Pelham, 1st Earl of Yarborough (1781-1846). Many of the larger pictures were to be placed in Lord Yarborough's London House, no. 17 Arlington Street. When the Arlington Street house was sold in 1929 the pictures placed there were sold at Christie's, 12 July 1929.