Holy Family with Saint Joseph Reading and the Young Saint John the Baptist
Santi di Tito
( Borgo San Sepolcro, 1536 - Florence, 1603 )
Oil on wood panel, 93.4 x 68.3 cm
The Virgin and Child are the focus of this composition, with subsidiary and contrasting figures of the elderly Saint Joseph and the young Saint John the Baptist to left and right, respectively. The former is shown wearing a bright red hat and immersed in reading a book, evoking what devout viewers might do as they contemplated this very image ; the young Baptist is recognizable by his camel-skin shirt and small reed cross which lies in the lower right corner of the picture. The prominent figure of the Madonna, the outdoor setting and the large structure on the right directly evoke a celebrated lost work by Andrea del Sarto, the Borgo Pinti tabernacle (see David Franklin, Painting in Renaissance Florence, 1500-1550, New Haven, 2001, p. 151). The suburban setting perhaps suggests that the Virgin is presented here as protector of the city ; the bell-tower of a church – the concrete visualization of one of the Virgin’s roles, Ecclesia – is visible in the far background. Sarto’s painting of the 1520s is also echoed in the pose of the Madonna, her right foot emerging at lower left, although Santi has cast her gaze lower, in a maternal but melancholy gesture, while she plays with the end of the Child’s swaddling-clothes, a symbol of his future shroud. The Baptist’s active pose is also Sartesque.
Santi di Tito, as we know from his biographers Giorgio Vasari (1568) and Filippo Baldinucci (1688), was a painter of Madonnas for the home as well as for ecclesiastical settings, and he based his compositions on a prolific series of drawings. Two such sheets in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence (7716 F. and 7711 F. verso) attest to his exploration of poses and could be relevant for the present painting, showing variations of the sprawled pose of our painted Christ Child, as well as a preliminary idea (in the second drawing) for the standing Baptist : see Simona Lecchini Giovannoni and Marco Collareta, Disegni di Santi di Tito (1536-1603), exh. cat., Florence, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, 1985, p. 64, no. 44, pp. 68-69, no. 54, and figs. 53, 64.
The work is one from Santi di Tito’s maturity, although difficult to date because his conservative style is stylistically homogeneous. Such a painting would certainly have provided its original owner with the visual equivalent of a meditation on the life of the Virgin and Child, and on the consolation to be found in their example, tinged with both joy and sorrow.