This painting is a nineteenth-century copy of The Virgin and Child with an Angel by Francesco Francia (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh). It is highly unusual because it is a forgery, made to deceive.
When the painting was bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1924 it was thought to be by the late fifteenth-century painter and goldsmith, Francesco Francia. In 1954, another version of the composition appeared on the art market (now in the Carnegie Museum). Scientific examination subsequently proved that the National Gallery’s picture was a deliberate fake.
The Virgin holds the naked infant Christ, who stands on her knee and raises his hand to us in blessing. An angel offers him cherries in a fantastic golden chalice, which may give us a sense of the appearance of Francia’s work as a goldsmith – almost all of which has been lost.
This painting is a nineteenth-century copy of The Virgin and Child with an Angel by Francesco Francia (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh). It is highly unusual because it is a forgery, made to deceive, and we now know who painted it and the circumstances of its creation.
In 1893, the chemist and industrialist, Ludwig Mond bought this painting, which was inscribed FRANCIA AURIFEX and dated 1492. He believed it to be the work of the fifteenth-century Bolognese painter and goldsmith (aurifex in Latin), Francesco Francia. He bequeathed it to the National Gallery in 1924 along with 41 other paintings.
The Virgin Mary holds the naked infant Christ, who stands on her knee and raises his hand to us in blessing. An angel beside Mary offers Christ a chalice containing cherries. These may be intended to represent the Eucharist, which is sometimes called the ‘fruit’ of Christ’s Passion. The cherries are to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice at the Crucifixion and his salvation of mankind through the wine of Communion. The fantastic golden chalice may give us a sense of Francia’s highly prized work as a goldsmith, almost all of which has been lost. The red cloth behind the Virgin has been drawn back to reveal a landscape with a distant mountain and a cliff, and two tiny figures, one on horseback and one on foot.
In 1954, the version of the composition now in Pittsburgh appeared for sale at auction in London, and its authenticity was verified by several influential art experts. The National Gallery commissioned a technical report of the picture in its collection, and four paint samples were examined under a microscope. Although the picture is painted on a fifteenth-century wooden panel, it was discovered that several of the pigments used, such as chrome yellow and Prussian blue, were not available until the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and the age cracks on the paint surface, known as craquelure, were found to be painted imitations. The underdrawing beneath the paint surface was revealed to be in graphite pencil, which was first patented in 1795 and only used widely from the nineteenth century. It became clear that the National Gallery’s painting was a deliberate fake.
During the 1840s, the original Francia painting belonged to the family of the Bolognese painter, Pelagio Palagi. The National Gallery fake was made before 1844 by Fausto Muzzi and Giuseppe Guizzardi, two Bolognese painters who had trained with Palagi in Rome. On 13 April 1844, Guizzardi wrote a note certifying that the original Francia picture was owned by the Palagi, and that a copy had been made by Muzzi and completed by himself. It is possible that the copy was commissioned as a souvenir for the Palagi family when the original Francia painting was sold. If this was the case, there would have been no need to reuse an old panel to make the painting look old. It is more likely that the copy was made to conceal the fact that the painting had been sold from the authorities or other family members.
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