When art diagnostics changes art history

Jun 25, 2024 | Discoveries, Restoration

“A Murillo Virgin to Drive You Mad”

Murillo holds a special place within the Spanish school of the Siglo de Oro due to his particular dedication to the image of Mary, capable of meeting the most diverse devotional needs.

The Madonna of the Milk in the Corsini Gallery, also known as the Gypsy Madonna, is certainly one of the most well-known examples, particularly emblematic of the Spanish painter’s ability to represent religious subjects within a context of “familial narration” and compositional simplicity.

Murillo constructed this composition around the sole figures of the Virgin and Child, outdoors but in a deliberately indistinct landscape, with a grey sky and a crumbling wall. The only vegetative elements are the ivy trailing down the wall and the bush on the left, which revealed small pink and white buds during the last restoration. Everything is focused on the two protagonists whose gazes, directed straight at the viewer, constitute the true focal point of the work.

The work is not dated, but the style, the swift, almost “blurred” brushstrokes, and the balanced composition all place it in the mature phase of the painter’s production, around 1675. Thus, we are looking at one of the pinnacles of his compositional experiments on the theme of the seated Madonna with the Child in her arms, a subject Murillo tackled several times before, including an early example now in Palazzo Pitti (1644-1649).

Compared to all these previous compositions, this Madonna in the Corsini Gallery presents substantial differences that make it unique in the painter’s production. Mary and the Child are characterized by extremely marked “popular” features. The Virgin, in particular, is a more mature woman with harsh and realistic features. The mother and child have just interrupted breastfeeding, explicitly indicated by Mary’s exposed breast, a truly unprecedented element compared to the painter’s previous experiments, but above all functional to confer further veracity to the scene. Caught by surprise by our arrival, the two figures pause and turn to look at us with those deep and magnetic eyes that would so captivate the nineteenth-century imagination.

Unfortunately, until now, no information has emerged about the commission of this work, which must have been quite demanding, given its size and the novelty of the figurative solutions. Although we cannot yet say anything about the origin and first patron of the painting, new and important information about the genesis of its composition emerged thanks to the latest restoration and the accompanying diagnostic investigations.

The restoration was carried out by the laboratory of the Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica in Rome, and it is the third documented intervention on the canvas, after some nineteenth-century works and a restoration in the 1990s.

The series of investigations initiated on the canvas for the first time in October 2020 (including X-ray, IR reflectography, multispectral analysis, X-ray fluorescence) and the meticulous cleaning to remove oxidized varnishes and old retouches allowed us to identify not only traces of changes, eliminated details, or different compositional balances, as often happens in the creative process of a work, but clear signs of a previous painting.

The X-ray image was particularly surprising, revealing beneath the current paint layer the presence of a kneeling figure in a landscape, face turned upwards, arms open, with the left hand above a book. The garment appears to be a sort of habit, as clarified by the long brushstrokes delineating the folds up to the left edge of the canvas, and it must have been dark, given the constant presence of bone black in that area of the painting. These elements easily identify this figure as the image of Saint Francis in his customary iconography, kneeling in ecstasy in hermitage.

The underlying work seems to have reached an advanced state of completion. Currently, however, it is not possible to provide a precise chronological reference. The reuse of canvases is not new, but here the exceptionality lies in the fact that the painter reused some parts of the previous figure for the new depiction, such as the tree integrated into the shadows of the wall on the right or the folds of the habit reused in Mary’s robe, and many of the rich and decisive brushstrokes defining the contours, for example, of the book or the habit in the lower right, are now visible even to the naked eye. The examinations also highlighted repeated interventions by the artist concentrated in certain parts of the figure, particularly on the eyes, one of the great attractions of this female image, and on the breast, which in the final version is partially uncovered, but in an earlier phase was hidden by the robe.

Once again, the diagnostic investigations not only ensured a careful restoration that respected every part of the original, including the artist’s changes of mind but also provided the opportunity to update and increase the information and knowledge about the artist and the painting.

This image enjoyed incredible fortune, especially in the nineteenth century, culminating in words written by Gustave Flaubert, who first wrote to his mother on April 8, 1851: “I saw a Virgin by Murillo the other day that is enough to drive one mad […] and to faint trying to make one like it.” He later wrote, “I saw the Virgin by Murillo that haunts me like a perpetual hallucination.” Finally, on May 4, Flaubert confessed to a friend, “I am in love with the Madonna by Murillo in the Corsini Gallery. Her head haunts me, and her eyes keep passing before me like two dancing lanterns.

The extraordinary fortune of the work is also evidenced by the high number of copies that helped spread its model and image. It is enough to consider that the list of painters allowed to copy in the Gallery mentions seventy-five replicas for the period 1841-1854 alone!

Filippo Melli