NEROCCIO de' Landi | Madonna and Child [Madonna col Bambino]

NEROCCIO de' Landi
Siena 1447 – 1500

Madonna and Child [Madonna col Bambino] c.1470-75
tempera and gold on wood panel
58.0 (h) x 43.5 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giovanni Morelli 1891

The exquisitely delicate appearance of the figures of the Madonna and Child which adorn the panels of the Sienese painter and sculptor Neroccio de’ Landi are, to some extent, the product of the passage of time. Mary’s robe, probably painted with a red lake pigment, has faded to a beautiful orange-pink. Similarly, her blue mantle has darkened so that it appears almost black. But the more expensive materials have hardly altered: the glorious gold ground remains, while rosy blushes of vermilion pigment warming the cheeks still convey to us the tint of living flesh. The slender Virgin’s pale fragility and the Child’s light tread impart an unearthly feeling to the scene. Giovanni Valagussa has pointed out that the overwhelming effect of the refined gold and paint is to give the work an ‘immaterial and transcendent dimension’.[1]

The panel was most probably intended for private devotion rather than decorating a church or public chapel. It is presented in its original frame, the hand-carved wood gilded with gold leaf by an artisan who specialised in this fine work.[2] The frame extends the field of gold of the panel itself. Intricate tooling describes and decorates both haloes with plant motifs, repeated in the margins. The Child stands on a marble sill, the blocks firmly held together by (painted) staples rendered in perspective reinforced by subtle shadows. The artist’s skill is demonstrated further by his handling of textiles: Mary’s stylish sleeves are fastened over a white underdress, a golden girdle encircles her waist, and her mantle is decorated with gold embroidery. Her flaxen curls are covered by a diaphanous white veil, picked up in the Infant’s loincloth.

Neroccio worked only in Siena, an artistic centre of strong traditions where Gothic elements remained long after they were transformed elsewhere in Central and Northern Italy. Here the conventional gold ground and shallow space are subverted in the gentle modelling of the Child’s body, the Virgin’s robe, her hand and especially her throat. Features are generalised and idealised, and the Virgin’s elegant fingers impossibly elongated. But the central characters show a new intimacy: the Child seems to bless his Mother, not us, and looks up at her in that startled manner of babies suddenly becoming aware. She looks down, perhaps past him, with a melancholy air that appears to signal foreboding, even foreknowledge of her Son’s fate. Unlike the static frontal poses seen in the earlier Gothic style, their bodies turn in space, implying movement. The Child’s right leg is a strong diagonal, adding dynamism to the seemingly simple composition. Such tensions arose as the prevailing conservative style of Siena, of Giovanni di Paolo and Matteo di Giovanni,[3] was challenged by the rise of Renaissance painting and sculpture in Florence, about seventy kilometres away.

Christine Dixon

[1]… l’œuvre à une dimension immatérielle et transcendante’. Giovanni Valagussa, cat. 14, in Botticelli, Bellini, Guardi … Chefs-d’œuvres de l’Accademia Carrara de Bergame, Paris: Editions Hazan, 2010, p. 60.

[2] Valagussa, p. 60.

[3] Giovanni di Paolo (c.1399–1482); Matteo di Giovanni (c.1430–1495).