Jacopo PALMA il Vecchio
near Bergamo 1460 /1500 – Venice 1528
Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene
[Madonna col Bambino e i santi Giovanni Battista e Maddelena] c.1517
oil on wood panel
73.9 (h) x 99.2 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866
Jacopo Palma il Vecchio [the Elder] was often described as the artist who began the Bergamo school of painting. From his birthplace in Serina, a province of Bergamo, he had moved to Venice by the time he was thirty. In the lagune city he became entranced by Giorgione and Titian, whose sweet way of colouring, ‘dolcezza di colorire’,  he appropriated to make his own in a highly individual manner. His public works in Venice were not numerous, but he was particularly popular with patrons when it came to Holy Conversations—groups of saints who converse around the Madonna and Child.
These half-figure devotional paintings were eagerly bought by foreign collectors in the seventeenth century, so that few remained in Venice. A Venetian provenance for the work emerges in Carlo Ridolfi’s Le maraviglie dell’arteof 1648, where he writes of the collection of Bortolo da Fino in Venice and describes this painting as a most rare effort, ‘rarissima fatica’. The subject, where the saints and the Virgin contemplate the Christ Child’s future Passion, would have been particularly appropriate for a patrician devotional chapel in a Venetian palace, such as that of Bortolo da Fino.
It is indeed an exceptional painting from Palma’s maturity, with a dramatic blue cloud-filled sky and a landscape background reminiscent of the mountains around Bergamo. The work gives the impression of being rapidly executed, with transparent layers of delicately coloured paint that allow the viewer to see many pentimenti [repentances] visible beneath the surface, thus charting how Palma developed the composition. Brushstrokes, seemingly applied very quickly in the areas of blue and red drapery, reveal the development of the composition from layer to layer.
While Saint John the Baptist was born just six months before Christ, here he is depicted as the hermit preacher who baptises Jesus at the beginning his short ministry, which culminated in the Crucifixion. The Virgin and Saint Mary Magdalene are women characteristic of Palma’s style, soft, full bodied and blonde. At the centre of the composition the Christ Child plays with the alabaster jar held by Mary Magdalene, grasping the lid while the saint attempts to keep it in place. The jar is a reference to the anointing of Christ’s feet by Mary Magdalene in the days before his Crucifixion. The languid sacred figures glance at one another, locked in an intense emotional conversation; their figures almost fill the frame of the panel.
Palma was inspired to quote from Raphael’s fresco masterpiece in the Farnesina Palace, Rome, The triumph of Galatea 1512: the Christ Child’s lunge to one side resembles a flamboyant winged cupid riding a shell beneath Galatea’s feet. Palma probably appropriated the motif from an engraving after Raphael by Marcantonio Raimondi, generally dated around 1515. The quotation demonstrates Palma’s admiration of his celebrated contemporary, as well as his own skill.
Giorgione (1477/1478?–1510); Titian (1488/1490–1576).
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. 137.
Ridolfi, p. 140.
Ridolfi, p. 140; Francesco Maria Tassi, Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti bergamaschi, Bergamo, 1793, 1, pp. 98–99; Giovanni Villa, in Giovanni Valagussa and Giovanni Villa (eds), I grandi veneti: Da Pisanello a Tiziano,
da Tintoretto a Tiepolo. Capolavori dall’Accademia di Bergamo, Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana Editoriale, 2010, pp. 100–01.
Raphael (1483–1520); Marcantonio Raimondi (c.1480–c.1534).
See Simone Facchinetti and Giovanni Valagussa, La Peinture italienne de la Renaissance au XVIIIe siècle. Trésors de l’Accademie Carrara de Bergame, Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2008, pp. 126–27.