The Madonna di Loreto: An Altarpiece by Perugino for Santa Maria dei Servi, Perugia
Carol Plazzotta, Michelle O’Malley, Ashok Roy, Raymond White and Martin Wyld
This article is an in-depth examination of Perugino’s Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Francis, otherwise known as the Madonna di Loreto (NG 1075), in the National Gallery (plate 1).1 The first section introduces the circumstances of its commission in 1507, and discusses its iconography, subsequent history and eventual acquisition by the Gallery. The second part is concerned with the relationship between Perugino’s reputation, and the prices and the practices of his production, and includes an investigation of the design, materials and techniques employed in the painting. The third part reviews the condition and conservation history of the altarpiece. Finally, the picture is considered in the light of its position in Perugino’s career and the question of its attributional status is assessed.
Perugino’s altarpiece was made for a chapel in the Servite church of Santa Maria dei Servi on the Colle Landone at Porta Eburnea in Perugia (note 2). The chapel’s construction and decoration had been endowed by Giovanni di Matteo di Giorgio Schiavone, a carpenter of the nearby parish of San Savino. As Schiavone’s last testament of 7 April 1507 makes clear, the chapel’s function was commemorative rather than funerary, since he left provision for his burial in an existing chapel dedicated to the Annunciation, bequeathing ten florins for an altar cloth or chalice and a further five florins for funeral masses to be recited by the friars (note 3). Having no surviving children, Schiavone left the main substance of his estate, consisting of two houses and their contents, to his wife Florita, the only beneficiary named in the will other than the Servite friars, seven of whom were witnesses to this document. Florita was to be responsible for making annual offerings of wine and grain to the confraternity of the Annunciation. In addition to these settlements, Schiavone had set aside 30 florins for the construction of a new chapel, a sum that was to be supplemented with rent from other properties, the title (but not the right of sale) of which he bequeathed to the friars. His executors were to make up the total amount required for the construction and the decoration of the chapel by selling the contents of a workshop located near the church that Schiavone had rented from the friars, an arrangement which sheds light on the carpenter’s association with Santa Maria dei Servi (note 4). Schiavone directed that the chapel (situated in a bay off the north side of the nave, close to the pulpit [note 5]) was to be decorated with an image of the Madonna di Loreto with Saints Jerome and Francis. His wording suggests that he intended a mural painting (note 6).
Schiavone must have died almost immediately, because only two months later his prompt executors drew up a contract with Perugino (dated 7 June 1507) (note 7). The contract differed slightly from the will in that a panel painting (‘unum tabulam de lignamine’) rather than a mural was specified. This was to be in Perugino’s own hand (‘de eius manu’), and was to depict, more specifically than the will had described, ‘an image of the glorious Virgin with her Son standing, similar to that of Loreto, with figures of the Blessed Jerome as Cardinal and Saint Francis with the stigmata’. Perugino was to get the woodwork made up at an agreed price of three soldi per foot, and was to use ‘fine colours’ and ‘gold ornaments’. A fee of 47 florins was also to cover a ‘pledula’ (discussed below) with fictive brocade vestments (‘paramentis brochatis’). The contract stipulated that all work was to be concluded by the following September, allowing the painter just under four months for completion. Beyond this deadline, with the exception of justifiable impediments, the fee would have to be returned in full (note 8).
The altarpiece was to represent a standing Madonna with the Child in her arms, modelled on that of Loreto, combined with the two named saints in their specific iconographies as cardinal and with the stigmata respectively. In other words it was to be first and foremost a sacra conversazione and not a conventional depiction of the Madonna di Loreto, which in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries most often featured the Madonna, with or without her Child, standing beneath a tabernacle with angels supporting the columns (the more familiar iconography of the transportation of the Santa Casa or Holy House only became mainstream in paintings after the turn of the sixteenth century) (note 9). The image of the Virgin then venerated at Loreto was a fourteenth-century carved wooden sculpture of Marchigian manufacture of a standing Virgin holding the Christ Child, both wearing crowns, which had replaced an earlier icon as the principal object of devotion there (fig. 1) (note 10). The sculpture was much replicated in the Marches and Umbria, and the model Schiavone’s heirs had in mind could easily have been a more local cult object in Perugia. For example, a polychrome sculpture attrib- uted to Ambrogio Maitani of a standing Virgin, crowned and carrying the Christ Child (plate 2), attracted intense devotion at the convent of Sant’Agostino and was particularly associated with the feast of the Madonna di Loreto (note 11). Perugino would probably have known this sculpture because the monks of Sant’Agostino commissioned an altarpiece from him for the church in 1502, and it may be no coincidence that the poses of the figures in Perugino’s painting resemble the statue quite closely (more than the Loretan prototype). The pedestal on which the Virgin stands in the painting could well reflect the central group’s loose dependence on a sculptural source. However, the low walled enclosure which Martin Davies suggested might be a further nod towards the Loretan theme of the Holy House frequently appears as a backdrop in other devotional subjects and is unlikely to be specifically related to that iconography (note 12). The motif of the coronation of the Virgin by a pair of angels in the altarpiece, unspecified by the patron or his executors, may derive from similar formulae in woodcut illustrations in early printed books relating the legend of the translation of the Virgin’s Holy House, which had a wide circulation from the late fifteenth century onwards (fig. 2) (note 13).