Giovanni BELLINI | Madonna and Child (Alzano Madonna) [Madonna col Bambino, detta di Alzano]

Giovanni BELLINI
Venice? 1433 /1436 – Venice 1516

Madonna and Child (Alzano Madonna) [Madonna col Bambino, detta di Alzano] c.1488
oil on wood panel
84.3 (h) x 65.5 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giovanni Morelli 1891

Among Giovanni Bellini’s many Madonna paintings the Alzano panel has always been recognised as a work of extraordinary quality.[1] Bellini has proudly signed the work on the painted crumpled paper attached to the red marble parapet directly below the maternal group: ‘IOANNES BELLINVS/P’.

Tenderly holding the Christ Child on her knee, the Madonna is seated improbably in front of a velvet curtain set in a landscape with two cities and figures executed in minute detail. Near the distant lagune city on the left, gondoliers are boating; a hunting party is led by a knight on horseback; and two men rest beside a tree, identified as pilgrims by their scallop shell emblems. The closer city on the right has towers at the perimeter and two elegantly cloaked men engaged in conversation outside the walls. The pear placed on the parapet is an allusion to the Virgin and her role as the new Eve who, together with Christ, redeems humanity. This invention never appears again in Bellini’s work and no copies were made in his workshop, although his other Madonnas were frequently copied by the workshop, attesting to the very special nature of this commission.

What were the circumstances that prompted Bellini to create such an altarpiece for a domestic setting? Most of his Madonna paintings have no provenance before the nineteenth century, but in this case there are early acknowledgements of the painting’s fame, and we may hypothesise.

In the 1550s two copies after the altarpiece were made by Giovan Battista Moroni,[2] portraitist to the Bergamo aristocracy. One was destined for the collection of the Agliardi family. However the location of the original is not documented until the seventeenth century when writers record that, from 1579, it was on the altar of the Immaculate Conception in the church of Santa Maria della Pace at Alzano, near Bergamo, in the funerary chapel of Pietro Camozzi-Gherardi—having a cover of the finest crystal, an indication of special reverence.[3] Camozzi-Gherardi was the heir to Lucrezia Agliardi. This first known location of the panel at Alzano, and the connection with the Agliardi family, has led scholars to suggest that the altarpiece previously belonged to Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova,[4] the patrician nun who founded the Carmelite convent of Sant’Anna in Albino at Alzano, where she became abbess in 1515.[5] The altarpiece could have been part of her dowry as a patrician nun. Lucrezia was the daughter of the most celebrated Bergamo architect of the fifteenth century, Alessio Agliardi. His circle included the condottiere Bartolommeo Colleoni, whose chapel is near the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, and Count Battista Suardi, who commissioned Lorenzo Lotto to make frescoes for his chapel at Trescore, near Bergamo. From 1488 to 1495 Alessio worked in Venice as a hydraulic engineer for Doge Agostino Barbarigo, and it is presumed that during that time he commissioned Bellini to make this altarpiece directly from the artist’s studio.[6] When the convent was suppressed in the Napoleonic period the altarpiece was bought by a priest, Giovanni Battista Noli, and later inherited by the Countess Noli from whom Giovanni Morelli bought it in December 1872.

Jaynie Anderson

[1] As was shown yet again in the most recent Bellini retrospective at Rome: Giovanni Bellini, (catalogue of the exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome), Rome: Silvana Editoriale, 2008, pp. 252–53.

[2] Giovan Battista Moroni (1520/1524–1578).

[3] Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte ovvero le vite degli illustri pittori veneti e dello stato (1648), D.F. von Hadeln (ed.), vol. 1, Berlin, 1914, p. 71;
Donato Calvi, Effemeride sacro-profana di quanto memorabile sia successo in Bergamo, Milan: Francesco Vigone, 1676, vol. 3, p. 244

[4] Lucrezia was married to Francesco Gaetano Vertova in 1509, but was widowed by 1515.

[5] Federico Zeri and Francesco Rossi, La raccolta Morelli nell’Accademia Carrara, Bergamo: Amilcare Pizzi, 1986, p. 128.

[6] I am indebted to the late Gian Paolo Agliardi for permission to consult his family archive.