The Divine Rebirth of Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch

August 3, 2013

Among all of Raphael's great works, his Madonna of the Goldfinch has a strong personal resonance. The wonderfully rich story of its creation, destruction and restoration is representative of all that is possible when talented individuals are dedicated to creating and maintaining an object of great beauty and cultural value.

Madonna of the Goldfinch
Madonna del Cardellino
Oil on poplar panel
107 x 77.2 cm
Uffizi, Florence inv.1890 no.1447
Listed by custodian gallery as an autograph work by Raphael

Two phases of ownership described - First by the Nasi and then into the Medici collections

1548 Reported in the collection of Lorenzo Nasi (described by Vasari), then to descendants
1646-47 Attributed to Raphael and cited in the private collection of Cardinal Giovan Carlo de' Medici on the Via della Scala ; cited in the 1663 inventory after his death
1663 ?Acquired by Giovan Carlo's nephew, Cardinal Carlo dei Medici, described in an inventory of his estate in 1666
1666  Entered the Uffizi collection as property of Grand Duke Ferdinand II de' Medici
1704  Recorded in the Tribuna at the Uffizi
1940 Moved first to the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano (13 May 1940), then the Castello di Poppi (23 October 1940)
1945 Moved to the Museo degli Argenti (Silver Museum or "Medici Treasury") at the Pitti Palace (21 May 1945), then into storage at the Uffizi (6 July 1945)
1948 Taken out of storage at the Uffizi on 24 June 1948

The meeting of the infant Saint John the Baptist and Christ is from an extra biblical source known as the Pseudo-Bonaventura, describing the Holy Family's return from Egypt. Madonna of the Goldfinch is thematically and stylistically linked to La Belle Jardinière (Louvre) and Madonna of the Meadow (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The scene depicted is sourced from the Pseudo-Bonaventura text Meditationes vitae Christi (c.1300). It relates the encounter with Saint John on the return from Egypt:
It is said, that the part of the Jordan in which John baptized, is that over which the children of Israel passed, when they came through this desert on their way from Egypt; and that John did penance near the same place. So that it is at least possible that the Child Jesus might find him there on His return from Egypt, Fancy then you see him joyfully receiving them : while they, remaining with him awhile, and partaking of his coarse and homely fare, share with him, in return, the sweets of spiritual refreshment, and then take their leave of him. [Trans. Oakeley. 1868]
This was a common theme in Renaissance art and liberties were frequently taken in mode of depiction when compared to the textual source, which states the encounter took place in the desert, and not in a meadow or garden. As a result, the vegetation rendered in such scenes instead embody symbolic attributes of the figures. This representation thus differs from the picture type known as the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden), which shows the Virgin in defined space filled with symbolic plants and animals. For aesthetic and allegorical purposes such depictions were essentially hybrids of pre-existing forms, their fusion bringing a sense of thematic and visual unity.

The painting includes some standard and others that are less common to figure groups of the Holy Family or the Madonna and Child with saints. The Virgin is seated on a rock and in bare feet, in adherence to the theme described as the Madonna Humilitas or Madonna of Humility - a departure from depictions of the Madonna on a throne, as often seen in altarpiece panels. The Virgin holds a book in one hand off to her side, but does not glance at it directly. The focal point of the composition is the European Goldfinch, a bird symbolically linked to the Passion owing to the fact that it feeds while perched on thorns.

Raphael's first (surviving) depiction of a European Goldfinch is in the work now known as the Solly Madonna, completed in Raphael's Umbrian phase. A key difference in the depiction of the bird is noted between these two pictures. The Solly Madonna (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) shows the infant Christ with a loop of string, in order to harness the bird, signifying his ultimate triumph over the events related in the Passion.

A possible source related to the depiction of the bird in the Madonna of the Goldfinch may come from Leonardo although the extent to which Raphael was familiar with Leonardo's work, and his writings is unknown from documentary sources. The most tangible evidence of this influence comes from Raphael's paintings and drawings, particularly in regard to his figure compositions. 

Among Leonardo's writings is a section on the Love of Virtue, which makes specific reference to the direction and symbolism of the goldfinch. It is known that Leonardo owned copies of Aesop's Fables, the medieval treatise Fior di Virtu and the thirteenth century text L'Acerba by Cecco d'Ascoli (Cohen, Kemp). Each of these texts comments on the goldfinch, and can be said to inform Leonardo's treatment of them in his writings. On this point, Leonardo writes,
The gold-finch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all his sickness.

Like unto this is the love of virtue. It never looks at any vile or base thing, but rather clings always to pure and virtuous things and takes up its abode in a noble heart; as the birds do in green woods on flowery branches. And this Love shows itself more in adversity than in prosperity; as light does, which shines most where the place is darkest. [Trans. Richter. 1883]
Hence, although the extent to which Raphael's depiction of the goldfinch in this picture is influenced by Leonardo's writing can not be conclusively proven, it does warrant consideration for its specific mention of the shift in symbolic meaning compared to the earlier Solly Madonna

Bridge symbolism?
Less often noted in discussions of this painting is the arched bridge at the left hand side of the composition. Across Europe, “Devil's Bridges” figure in folk tales and popular legends, representing triumph over the devil (see Ashliman). In Italy, these bridges are generally called Ponti del Diavolo, and there are various medieval examples throughout the country. In the literature regarding the Madonna of the Goldfinch (and Renaissance art in general) this bridge iconography has been little explored. Bridges have also been noted in depictions of Holy journeys, such as Albrecht Dürer engravings of The Vision of Saint Eustace (c.1501-2) and The Flight into Egypt (c.1504). Although there is likely to have been a specific source for Raphael's bridge in the Madonna of the Goldfinch, it remains to be identified conclusively.

Plants depicted
Plants with symbolic meanings often appear in depictions of the Holy family. Four tentatively identifiable plants are shown below, with traditions of meaning in Christian art and particular reference to the Madonna and Christ child. (Levi d'Ancona, Ferguson).  Daisies represented the innocence of the Christ child, anemones denoted the sorrow of the Virgin for the Passion. Plaintains are cited as a symbol of the path of the multitude following Christ. Violets were a symbol of humility describing the Virgin and the Christ child, the latter being linked to descriptions by Adam of Perseigne and Saint Bernard.  

a daisy b plantain c anemone d violet

Saint John the Baptist as hermit
The figure of the infant Saint John is instantly recognisable due to his attire. Depictions of desert hermits were commonly shown to be wearing animal skins. Description of Saint John in the wilderness mention him "living on wild honey and locusts and wearing a garment of camel hair with a leather girdle" (Murray). The bowl hanging from the young saint's waist is a direct foreshadowing of a later event, the baptism of Christ - images of which often include Saint John with a simple bowl befitting a desert hermit.

Background landscape and buildings
The depiction of the landscape divided between natural features and a stylised buildings can be attributed to the northern influence which became increasingly popular in early 16th century depictions. The building in the background has not been conclusively identified as a reference to any actual structures, but could be interpreted as stylised image of a town and a church. The blue dome in particular could be a reference to the Eastern Church or the Holy Land.

Along with the Madonna of the Meadow and La Belle Jardinière, this piece is emblematic of the strong Florentine influence on Raphael's style. The pyramidal arrangements of figures is ascribed to Raphael's exposure to Leonardo. The position of the Christ child between the Virgin's knees is commonly attributed to the influence of Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna and Child. The depiction of the background hearkens to Raphael's Umbrian phase and inspiration from Northern sources where such features were commonly depicted.

click to enlarge

Documentary sources
Vasari's account of this particular work is refreshingly detailed, providing both a description of the patron, the work itself as well as an account of the calamity that befell the panel during Vasari's own lifetime.
Raffaello had also formed a very great friendship with Lorenzo Nasi; and for this Lorenzo, who had taken a wife about that time, he painted a picture in which he made a Madonna, and between her legs a Son, to whom a little S. John, full of joy, is offering a bird, with great delight and pleasure for both of them. In the attitude of each is a certain childlike simplicity which is wholly lovely, besides that they are so well coloured, and executed with such diligence, that they appear to be rather of living flesh than wrought by means of colour and draughtsmanship; the Madonna, likewise, has an air truly full of grace and divinity; and the foreground, the landscapes and in short all the rest of the work are most beautiful. This picture was held by Lorenzo Nasi, as long as he lived, in very great veneration, both in memory of Raffaello, who had been so much his friend, and on account of the dignity and excellence of the work; but afterwards, on August 9, in the year 1548, it met an evil fate, when, on account of the collapse of the hill of S. Giorgio, the house of Lorenzo fell down, together with the ornate and beautiful houses of the heirs of Marco del Nero, and other neighbouring dwellings. However, the pieces of the picture being found among fragments of the ruins, the son of Lorenzo, Batista, who was a great lover of art, had them put together as well as possible. [Trans. DeVere. 1996]
Notes on Vasari's account, the landslide of 1547 and the collapse of the Nasi house
The 1506 date for this work not only fits Raphael's stylistic progression at this stage during his Florentine exposure, but also is suggested as a possible wedding portrait for Lorenzo Nasi's marriage to Sandra di Matteo Canigiani.

On Saturday 12 November 1547 (Julian calendar date), a landslide originating in the Monte di San Giorgio resulted in the destruction of a group of homes in the area, including the house of Lorenzo Nasi. In references consulted for this entry, a great variation in the date of this landslide is noted. The 1550 edition of Vasari states August 9 1547, which was later corrected to November 17 1547 in the second edition of the Lives. In 1897, Milanesi adds a corrective footnote citing the actual date of the landslide being 12 November 1547. A seventeenth century account of the landslide by Manni describes primary sources relating the incident, including the damage to the nearby Church of Santa Lucia and a citation referencing a first hand description of the destruction,. This source also confirms the date of the landslide as 12 November, 1547.

In 1556 Cosimo I de' Medici banned further construction on the site on account of it's instability. To this day the area is called the rovinate (ruins), a plaque announcing Cosimo's decree is still visible.
Dwellings thrice fallen in ruin through the fault of the earth of this hill, let nobody again rebuild. Cosimo de' Medici Duke of Florence and Siena has forbidden it in October 1565. [Trans. Lockyer. 2012]

Preparatory Drawings
Two compositional studies for this piece survive, in the collection of Raphael drawings at the Ashmolean at Oxford University.

a.Two Studies for a Virgin and Child with Saint John
Parker II (1956) 516. WA1846.159. Recto
Pen and brown ink on off-white paper. Sheet: 248 x 204 mm.

The Christ child starts initially on the Virgin's lap, with the tilt of her head also more directly to the infant Saint John. On the same sheet, this was revised to place the Christ child between the Virgin's knees, whilst still maintain the tilt of the head.

b. The Virgin and Child with Saint John
Parker II (1956) 517; Macandrew (1980) App.2.517. WA1846.160. Recto
Pen and brown ink on white paper. Sheet: 230 x 163 mm.

In this compositional study, the Virgin's gaze has now shifted towards the Christ child, whose posture now begins to more closely resemble the reaching movement seen in the final composition. The figure of the infant Saint John is still being developed in these drawings. In addition, the Goldfinch is not directly suggested in either surviving study - and in this instance, the Virgin is showing the Christ child a book. There is also an indication of the baptismal bowl hanging from young Saint John's waist.

click to view

Condition & Restoration
The first restoration occurred following extensive damage to the painting following the 1547 landslide.  This sixteenth century restoration has been attributed to Michele di Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, although the documentary basis of this claim has been difficult to verify beyond a claim by Gamba in 1949, and later repeated in a footnote in the 1991 Italian publication of  the 1550 edition of Vasari's Lives. Other documented restorations are noted in 1804 (conducted by Sampieri) and 1821 (by del Podesta),  1843, 1947 and 1984.

The modern restoration of the painting (1999-2006) was undertaken by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (OPD) in Florence, culminating in an exhibition of the restored piece in 2008-9. A full account is given in Natali, Ciatti and Riitano (2008). An in-progress description in English published in 2007,which included a summary of the scientific investigation as the time of writing (November 2004)
  • X-radiographs were taken to reveal the extent of fractures and repars to the panel.
  • Images taken in raking light were made to reveal surface irregularities on the panel.
  • Digital infrared reflectography allowed examination of preliminary drawing and subsequent layers - these images showed part of the image had been transferred via a cartoon, due to presence of pounce marks. Other additions were made in freehand using a brush.
  • False colour infrared images allowed differentiation between original paint layer and retouches.
  • UV Fluorescence examination allowed the thinning of old varnish layers to be tracked as cleaning progressed.
  • X-ray fluorescence allowed analysis of pigments types applied in various stages of the painting's life, via sample of 149 measures.
  • 3-dimensional modelling and surface topography techniques provided vital data on the nature of the panel and painted surface which compared with other images provided a more detailed 3-dimensional overview of problematic areas.
  • Chemical and cross-sectional analyses were applied to samples taken in the 1984 restoration.
Below is a 2008 Reuters news summary of the restoration at its completion, including comments by  Patrizia Riitano and Marco Ciatti. In 2010, a high resolution image of the fully restored piece was added to the Google Art Project.

Ashliman, DL. Devil's Bridge Legends. Folktales of the Aarne-Thompson Uther Type. University of Pittsburgh website. Accessed April 24 2012 link

Bonaventure, Oakeley, F. [Trans.] The life of Jesus Christ. Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1868. pp.60-61 link

Ciatti, M. Riitano, P. Raphael's Madonna del Cardellino: The Conservation Project in Raphael's Painting Technique: Working Practises Before Rome. Proceedings of the Eu-ARTECH workshop. Nardini Editore. 2007. pp.25-33.

Cohen, S. Animals Disguised as Symbols in Renaissance Art. Brill. 2008. pp.27-28. Excerpted text available at Google Books link

Da Vinci, L. (Trans. Richter, JP). The Literary works of Leonardo da Vinci. 1883. Samson Low, Marston, Searle and Livingston. 1883. Vol. 2. p.315. link This version is recommended as it provides transcription of Italian beside the translation and is in the public domain. Full text via

Fahim, B. Raphael Madonna Returns. October 24 2008. Reuters News clip. Accessed April 24 2012 link

Ferguson, GW. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. Oxford University Press. p.27-40. Excerpted text available at Google Books link

Friedman, H. The Symbolic Goldfinch - its History and Significance in European Devotional Art. Washington DC. Pantheon. 1947

Gamba, C. Pittura umbra del Rinascimento: Raffaello. Novara, 1949.

Gregori, M. et al. Raffaello a Firenze : Dipinti e disegni delle collezione fiorentine. exh. cat. Electa Editrice. Milan. 1984. pp.237-268

Levi D'Ancona, M. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1977.

Kemp, M. Leonardo da Vinci - The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man. Oxford University Press. 2006. pp.139-141. Excerpted text available at Google Books link

Lockyer, T. Notes on the Rovinate inscription, Oltrarno District Florence. April 23 2012. pdf

Manni, DM. Osservazioni e giunte istoriche di Domenico M. Manni...circa i sigilli antichi dei secoli bassi. Volume 21. Appresso Giovanni Risaliti. 1770. pp.30-38. Full text via Google Books

Meyer zur Capellen, J. Raphael: The Paintings. Arcos Verlag. 2001. Vol. 1. pp.112-115 ; 219-222

Murray, P & L. The Oxford Companion to Early Christian Art & Architecture, Oxford University Press. 1996. p.253

Natali, A. Ciatti, M. Riitano, P. L'amore, l'arte e la grazia. Raffaello: la Madonna del Cardellino restaurata. Catalogo della mostra. Mandragon. Firenze. 2008

Pulella, P. Technology helps restore Raphael Masterpiece. October 28 2008. Reueters website. Accessed April 24 2012. link

Uffizi 1890 Inventory. Entry no.1447. Polo Museale Fiorentino website. Accessed April 24 2012. link

Vasari, G.  Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects. (Trans. DeVere, GC) Ekserdijan, D.(ed.). Knopf. 1996

Many thanks to Dr. Edward Goldberg for his assistance with sources in Italian, and Terrence Lockyer for providing the translation of the rovinate inscription. 

Image notes
High resolution scan available at Google Art Project link
Rovinate plaque image by Roberto Di Fernando at Curiosità di Firenze link
European Goldfinch image via wiki commons link
Ashmolean drawings source from Ashmolean site a WA1846.159.R  b WA1846.160.R


Robert said...

That's a tremendously interesting article; thanks for posting it. Your detail in research, and ambition to tie all the available opinions and information together in one place, are delightful, so we're grateful for you sharing it.

If you'll forgive my pedantry, I have noticed a few typographical errors: a rogue apostrophe in "its" in the thrid paragraph of the Nasi House section; a repacement of "dead" for "head" in the a) paragraph of the preparatory drawings section; a misspelling of "excerpted" in the Kemp reference of the bibliography.

Thanks again for your efforts. I have learned so much more about art history, interpretation and appreciation from reading your articles.

Frank said...

Welcome back and thanks for this very comprehensive post. I would just like to offer a comment on the bridge in the background. I don't think there is anything in the legend of the return from Egypt that would indicate a Satan's bridge. I would think that Raphael used the bridge to indicate a separation as well as a connection between two places (Judea and Egypt) in the same way that Giorgione used a bridge in the Tempest.


Robert said...

NB Please excuse the typos in my own reference to your typos. What a ridiculously inevitable irony. Pot calling the kettle black etc etc. Sorry!

Anonymous said...

What a treat for us to have such a detailed case study of this particular Raphael, its great significance to the author evident in every syllable!

Thanks for this H, I can imagine returing to Florence last year would have been extra special for you, revisiting this brilliantly restored piece.

Stephanie S

Hasan Niyazi said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Robert - I am pleased you enjoyed the article. I appreciate you taking the time to point out the typos, though would prefer you sent a private communication as these comments should focus on the post content!

@Frank - I was not inferring that the aprocryphal story contains a "devil's bridge" - the shapes of bridges depicted in such images varies... but Raphael has distinctively chosen a medieval arch bridge here, and I wanted to indicate that such bridges had their own meaning, which do have parallels with the theme of an image foreshadowing The Passion/Resurrection - particularly those including the Goldfinch.

Stephanie - Thank you again for your most wonderful comment! it was indeed a treat to see this work again last year, this piece has a very special place in my heart, and I am pleased to see it is now afforded central place in the Uffizi's new Raphael room (sala 66).


M @ Alberti's Window said...

Yay! A post at 3PP! Great case study, Hasan. I always enjoy when you delve into a little iconography. I didn't know that the goldfinch was associated with the Passion due to its association with thorns. So many paintings of the Christ and/or St. John the Baptist will be much more meaningful to me, now!

Are you familiar with Jacopo del Sellaio's "Saint John the Baptist" from c. 1480? It depicts a goldfinch in the foreground at John's feet, but also interestingly has a cityscape (with a prominent bridge and a dome that looks like the Duomo) in the background. Your mention of a bridge and dome reminded me of this painting:

Hasan Niyazi said...

Cheers M! Other legends associate the red that can be seen on the head of the European Goldfinch as a drop of Christ's blood. For a thorough study of Goldfinch iconography, it is worth tracking down the elusive Friedman volume.

I love that dell Sellaio picture - so wonderfully Florentine in many ways, and I am always amused to find examples of spelling oddities in Latin inscriptions (which that one has!)

Kind Regards

Kirsten Taylor said...

Apart from the symbology... it moves me! as a mother it is about character. The one learning and staying by his mothers side, the other running back excited with the goldfinch he has found. said...

learn more about

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...