Benvenuto Tisi, called il GAROFALO
Madonna and child

Benvenuto Tisi, called il GAROFALO, Italy, 1481 - 1559, Madonna and child, c.1505-10, Ferrara, oil on wood panel, 27.5 x 23.75 cm (sight), 38.8 x 35.0 x 8.7 cm (frame); Gift of William Bowmore AO OBE through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 1999, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

About this work of art

This painting of the infant Christ and the Virgin Mary dates from the High Renaissance – a brief three decades of astonishing artistic output when the creative geniuses Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael were all active in Italy. Madonna and Child, a work of serene beauty from about 1510, was painted around the very time that Leonardo was creating his masterpiece the Mona Lisa and as Michelangelo was completing the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In contrast to these celebrated public masterpieces, this more modest painting by Benvenuto Tisi – who was known as Il Garofalo – was almost certainly intended for private devotional use, at the home of its wealthy owner or perhaps when the owner was travelling.

Garofalo was a prolific painter of spiritually uplifting religious themes who has been called ‘the Raphael of Ferrara’, the northern Italian city with which he is most closely associated. In fact, soon after he painted Madonna and Child, Garofalo worked under Raphael in Rome on a series of frescoes in the Vatican, and the master’s influence on his work was considerable. Today, 500 years later, frescoes and major oil paintings by Garofalo still adorn churches and major buildings in Ferrara and his commissioned works can be found across northern Italy.

As well as major commissions, Garofalo also produced a number of paintings similar to the Madonna and child. This work is rich in symbolism. The Madonna wears a dress of red under a mantle of blue – an artistic convention suggesting that the Mother of God connected the human world of earth, blood and suffering to the divinity of heaven above. The child Christ clutches a dove, symbolising the holy spirit. The painting also reflects the enduring influences of Garofalo’s home town. His depiction of a standing infant Jesus follows a style preferred in Ferrara in the period. His Madonna’s distinctive almond-shaped eyes are also a trait of the Ferrara-born painter Boccaccio Boccaccino, to whom Garofalo had been indentured as a pupil.

Madonna and Child is a fine example of the artist’s work. From the beatific beauty of the Madonna’s face to the refined detail of folds in fabric, Garofalo conveys simplicity and grace yet renders it in elegance.

Audio description of the work of art

This small Renaissance work was made in Ferrara between 1505 and 1510CE, painted in oil on wood. It is about 27cms high by 23cms wide, with a plain moulded frame that is 38.8cms high, 35cms wide and 8.7cms deep. The gold leaf has dulled over time and horizontal crackling now adorns the gilding, attesting to its age.

This intimate closeup of Madonna and childdepicts the Virgin Mary and the Christ child as a young infant in the foreground of the painting, and an exquisitely detailed countryside in the background. Mary’s head nearly touches the edge of the painting, the faces of mother and child, their drapes and hints of classical architecture take up most of the space. The painting is lit from the left with an afternoon glow, so shadows are on the right of the Madonna and child.

The Madonna is on the left, she is standing behind a masonry wall, her body gently angled to the right as the child stands on the wall and leans his body against her. Her head inclines slightly to the left of the painting, the serene beauty of this work is epitomised in Mary’s pale oval face. She has large almond shaped blue eyes, fine arched brows, a delicate nose, and a mouth with full shapely lips that curve gently upwards. Her golden hair is smooth and twisted forwards to cover her ears, a pinkish red snood or scarf is wrapped around the lower part of her hair and caught in a small bow above her central part. Her red gown has wide voluminous sleeves with a white underlay, vertical folds at the front of the bodice, and the square modest neckline is edged in dark-red ribbon and lace.

The naked infant is standing on her right, one arm draped around his mother’s neck, and in his right hand he holds a dove. An orange cloak with a white border covers his shoulders, its folds gather on a balustrade near his right elbow and the cloth bunches at his feet. The peaceful evening light shimmers off their hair and skin making all slightly golden in the glow.

Like many Renaissance paintings this one is rich in symbolism. A sacred halo of two gold lines surrounds the Virgin Mary’s head. Her red robe references the suffering and blood of this world, her deep blue outer cloak the heavenly realm. The Madonna’s left arm rests on the smooth masonry ledge that runs along the bottom edge of painting, her open palm faces heavenward. The child’s right foot lays in her graceful fingers. His left arm encircles his mother’s neck and the weight of his little body is held through the plump left hip and leg. The Christ child’s halo is a crown of golden light rays, 14 graduating lines extend upwards above his head and another set of 11 rays to both sides create a cross formation behind his holy head. His elbow rests at chest height against a pillar. The gaze of the child is focused on the dove clasped in his right hand, the dove symbolizes the accompanying Holy Spirit; its white and brown head and wings are free.

In the background, above the shoulders of the Madonna and Child, a yellow field gives additional depth to the work. On the left a road leads to a white church and village. Behind this village a hill side rises to the right and provides the horizon from which spring the glowing colours of a serene evening, orange, purple and blue, wash across the sky. On the right behind the child and beyond the field, a dark grove of trees is also highlighted in the evening light, providing a foil for the Christ child’s halo.

The simple grace and elegance of this quiet painting makes it a small gem in the AGSA collection.