The Madonna del Granduca is one of the most famous Madonnas by Raphael, its authorship has never been questioned, but there is no reliable information about the creation of the picture and its location until the 17th century. It is believed that the artist painted the Madonna del Granduca around 1504. It became the first painting created in Florence, where Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino came to personally see the works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and improve his own style under their influence.
“Unfortunately, no one knows the mother, whose features inspired Raphael,” wrote Semen Briliant, the biographer of the artist from Urbino. “Perhaps the great artist met her in one of the villages around Florence, as he sketched his other wonderful drawing, Madonna della Sedia in Rome, during a carnival, putting a sheet of paper on an overturned barrel, ignoring the crowd surrounding him and everything else.”
What does the title of the painting mean? Translated from Italian, granduca means Grand Duke, and Madonna del Granduca means “Madonna of the Grand Duke”. At the very end of the 18th century, the painting was acquired by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinand III (1769-1824). (1769—1824). It was the time of the Napoleonic wars, hectic and dangerous. As a result of barbaric robberies, the Florentine Pitti Palace, the ducal residence, lost many of its picturesque treasures then, including paintings by Raphael, and the Duke Ferdinand III himself fled to Vienna. There he received a letter from the director of the Uffizi, Tommaso Puccini, in the late autumn of 1799. With excitement, he reported that he had recently met a perfectly preserved early Madonna by Raphael with a Florentine merchant and begged the duke for permission to purchase it. Ferdinand III agreed and never regretted it. On the contrary, the duke was extremely attached to his acquisition. The Madonna del Granduca not only hung in his bedroom, it always accompanied Ferdinand III on his way. When the Duke went into exile in Würzburg, the Raphael’s painting went with him. However, you cannot be sure that Ferdinand, whose title gave the picture its current name, saw artistic value in it. Rather, Madonna del Granduca became kind of his talisman. Some considered the image to be miraculous.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the painting was restored by Vittorio Sampieri. In 1821—1830, the Madonna was temporarily transferred to the Uffizi Gallery, and then returned to the Palatine Gallery, which was part of the Palazzo Pitti, where it is kept now (however, from recent time, the Uffizi Galleries formally include the Palatine Gallery). What are the artistic merits of the Madonna del Granduca?
At first glance, the composition of the picture is extremely simple. But it is that elusive, high-level simplicity that is more valuable than contrived complexity. The Virgin Mary, depicted knee-deep, is holding an almost naked Baby in her arms; He holds his arms on His Mother’s shoulder and chest. He looks at the viewer intently and maturely, while Mary lowers her eyes shyly and timidly. Here, there is still some stiffness of the young painter in rendering the pose (some noticed that the Baby feels “uncomfortable” in this position), but the figure of Mary, slightly inclined to the left, is balanced by the turn of the little Jesus in the opposite direction; such a composition leaves the impression of an amazing balance of volumes and masses, rare artistic compactness and harmony. Mary’s half-closed eyes, her timidity and tenderness infect the viewer with a sense of high humility before the inevitability of everything destined.
“Everything here is natural, precisely built,” the famous Austrian-English historian and art theorist Ernst Gombrich writes about Madonna del Granduca, “and any displacement threatens to destroy the harmony. At the same time, there are no artificial, forced methods in the picture, as if it were formed not by the will of the artist, but by the command of nature itself.”
Colour symbolism in Madonna del Granduca
In this painting by Raphael, the chiton and the cape of the Virgin Mary are made in traditional colours, red and blue (Raphael had never been to Venice, but, no doubt, he knew that the famous Venetian Giovanni Bellini). dressed his Madonnas in these colours). The red colour of the tunic symbolizes the Savior’s blood shed on the cross during His vicarious sufferings; the blue colour of the Madonna’s cape evidences about Her purity in the language of paints. Although the continuous dark background of the picture is not typical for Raphael, who more often preferred to depict his Madonnas in the lap of nature.
The mystery of the Madonna del Granduca
A preliminary drawing for Madonna del Granduca" has been preserved. There are two important differences between the drawing and the painting: firstly, the Madonna in the drawing is surrounded by the tondo, and secondly, behind her you can observe the generalized outlines of the landscape.
But the Grand Duke Ferdinand III received the picture in the form in which we can see it — Madonna on a dark olive, almost black background. Experts began to doubt: does this dull background really belong to Raphael’s brush? The X-ray showed that many interesting things were hidden under the layer of dark paint. It was not possible to thoroughly examine everything, but it is still clear that behind Mary’s back, there was once a balustrade or a high step, and a landscape behind it. On the right, you can discern an overhanging structure — it could be a tree branch, or a curtain, like in the Sistine Madonna. On the left is either the second half of the curtain or a building wall. However, all this is safely hidden under the impenetrable blackness of the background.
The question is, did Rafael himself, obeying his own reasons, tinted the background with dark paint, or was it done by someone later? Of course, we can assume that the artist was dissatisfied with his landscape and painted it over. In the early Florentine period, he was strongly influenced by the manner of Leonardo da Vinci, who preferred a dark and disturbing background for his paintings. But, even succumbing to the temptation to repeat the Leonardo’s effect of the mysterious twilight, uncharacteristic for his clear manner, Raphael would have retained some outlines of objects and would hardly have made the background impenetrable for the eyes.
Therefore, the version that the black background was painted by someone else than Raphael looks closer to reality. According to some reports, the owner of the painting in the 17th century was the famous Florentine painter of the Baroque era Carlo Dolci (1616—1686), from whose heirs the painting came to Ferdinand III. The Baroque is inseparable from the artistic reforms of Caravaggio and his tenebroso style, characterized by dark backgrounds with sharply protruding figures sculpted with contrasting chiaroscuro against them. It became extremely fashionable, a whole trend was formed, conventionally called tenebrism. Perhaps, having drastically darkened the background of Madonna del Granduca, one of the owners of the picture (e.g., Dolci) decided that in this way he would make the work topical. Or did the then owner of the painting not suspect that the author of the painting was Raphael himself, and therefore provided it with a black background before selling it in order to pass it off as a work of a fashionable contemporary? Anyway, these are just speculations.