Florence 1541 – 1590 Rome
The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist
oil on copper
18 ½ x 14 ¾ inches
47 x 37.5 cm
A protégé of Giorgio Vasari, the Florentine Mannerist Jacopo Zucchi is known for his varied artistic output. He executed large altarpieces, designed household furnishings and interiors, and also produced smaller easel pictures, often on copper, as is the case with the present work.
One of Zucchi’s most significant later patrons was Cardinal Ferdinando I de’ Medici for whom the artist worked in Rome for over twenty years. He carried out numerous artistic projects for the Cardinal, including the decoration of rooms in the Palazzo di Firenze and the Villa Medici (fig. 1), his two principal residences in Rome, as well as providing smaller works and quadretti often used to decorate a large writing desk, or studiolo. Much of the artist’s activity in the household of Ferdinando is recorded in the volumes of the Guardaroba Medicea preserved in the state archives, Florence. This documentation details not only specific commissions but also provides information on the purchase of materials and frames for such commissions.
On 16 January 1581, Zucchi is recorded as taking delivery of two copper plates measuring ‘palmi 2 e larghe palmi 1 ¾’. These two plates may well have been used two years later to produce two works described in the Guardaroba as follows: ‘Due Quadrettini in Rame uno di palmo I inc(irc)a dipinto la n’ra Do’na con xpo inb(raccio) in abito di zingara e uno simile vestita alord(inari) o ritratto da una di michelagl° fattoci m.°. Iacopo zucchj adj 7 febb° 1583’.
The measurements of the above paintings are smaller than those of the copper plates received two years earlier. However, given the precise descriptions in the Guardaroba, it may be possible to identify them as the present work and a copper of the same size and very similar conception, namely the Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist now in the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse (inv. 2004 1 310). In the latter work, the Virgin holds the Christ Child in her arms and is simply dressed in red and blue with her hair tucked neatly beneath her veil. The composition of our panel closely follows that of the Toulouse picture with the distant mountains and town depicted in cool blue tones beyond a verdant landscape bisected diagonally by a river and with the foreground populated by numerous plants and flowers. The Madonna in our work, however, wears a very different costume; a white blouse with full sleeves beneath red and blue robes, along with a striped veil, and her hair is draped loosely around her shoulders, more in the manner of a zingara [gypsy]. A further reason for considering these two coppers as those executed in 1583/4 is that they are stylistically close to other works by Zucchi of this date. The attenuated gestures, the coloring and, pariicularly, the figure of Saint Joseph, all find echoes in his altarpiece of Pentecost carried out in the early 1580s for Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome.
The Guardaroba also reveals that the two copper paintings later received ebony frames and that one was presented to the Marchesa Santacroce: ‘Dua quadrettj In Rame inuno dipintorj la n’ra Donna alazinghanescha el laltro che ra n’ra Donna che riè da uno di michelagl° e fattoli fare li ornamentij debano e datj a S.S. Ill.ma che uno va donato a lucrel’rasches e uno alla Marchesa Sta Croce adj 7 febb° 1583’. It was not the first time that the Marchesa Santacroce had been the recipient of a gift from Cardinal Ferdinando. According to a 1575 entry in the Guardaroba, Zucchi executed a copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration originally for San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, and now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Two years later, the painting was fitted in a wooden crate and sent as a gift to the Marchesa Santacroce.
The attribution of both of these copper panels presented some problems in the past. At one point, the Toulouse Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist was considered to be by a follower of Federico Barrocci and then later in the 1950s was attributed to Rottenhammer. Similarly, the present work was described as ‘Bril and Rottenhammer’ when it was sold at Christie’s in 1951. Phillip Pouncey had correctly identified the Toulouse copper as by Zucchi by 1955, and our Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist was sold twelve years later as a work by Jacopo Zucchi.
The use of copper seems to have been promoted by Francesco de’ Medici who was the patron of some of the earliest artists to use the support, among them Giorgio Vasari and Alessandro Allori, perhaps as early as the 1560s. Zucchi, who started to use this technique in the early 1570s was among its earliest and most successful practitioners. In Rome, where Zucchi painted coppers for the studiolo di noce at the Villa Medici, he would have seen the work of northern artists such as Paul Bril who had arrived there in 1580. This Holy Family with St. Johnshows Zucchi moving away from his early Vasarian style and embracing the bright colors and naturalism so beloved in Rome by Federico Borromeo who would then take it with him when he went to Milan in 1595.
The present composition is highly characteristic of the works Zucchi painted for Cardinal Ferdinando I de’ Medici, who became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1557. It reflects the Cardinal’s taste for works in a small format and painted on copper, in which the preciousness of the materials used, especially lapis lazuli as a blue pigment, combines well with a subtlety of execution and refined symbolism that pervades even the smallest of details. The view of a distant town traversed by a river is reminiscent of Florence, especially in the building with a cupola that distantly recalls Brunelleschi’s Santa Maria del Fiore, while at the same time evoking the antique monuments of Rome. The seven species of flowers so meticulously represented in the foreground are directly tied to Christian symbolism. To the while lily, symbol of purity and the traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary, Zucchi added cornflower (a species dedicated to the Virgin, but also associated with Christ as the conqueror of Satan by virtue of its property of curing poisonous bites), marigold (also called ‘Oro di Maria’ [gold of Mary] in Italian), and cyclamen (the pink flowers on the right, called ‘the hand of Mary’ after a legend according to which the Virgin placed her hand on the plant which then formed its five leaves reminiscent of fingers). All these flowers attest to Ferdinando I de’ Medici’s interest in the natural sciences. This led him to hire the naturalist and botanist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) and, from 1577 until 1600, the painter Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1627) to execute numerous botanical works, which are largely still preserved in Florence (Gabinetti Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi) and Bologna (Biblioteca Universitaria). ❖
(Presumably) commissioned by Cardinal Ferdinando I de’ Medici, 1583
By whom presented to the Marchesa Santacroce
London, Christie’s, 18 May 1951, lot 138
London, Sotheby’s, 19 April 1967, lot 41
Private collection, until 2017
Edmund Pillsbury, ‘The Cabinet Paintings of Jacopo Zucchi: their meaning and function,’ Monuments et Mémoires de la Fondation Eugène Piot, 1980, vol. LXIII, pp. 207-209, 225-226, reproduced p. 206, fig. 10.
Michael Hochmann, ed., Villa Medici: il Sogno di un Cardinale, exh. cat. Rome, 1999, no. 80.
Axel Hémery, La Peinture italienne au Musée des Augustins. Catalogue raisonné, Toulouse, 2003, p. 125.
John Marciari, Italian Paintings from the Richard L. Feigen Collection, exh. cat. Yale University Art Gallery, 2010, pp. 122 and 124.