Francesco, Giacomo and Giulio Francia Virgin and Child with the young Saint John in a garden of roses

Francesco Francia was the leading Renaissance painter in the Northern Italian city of Bologna. Like other successful artists of the time, he employed many assistants in his large studio, including his two sons, Giacomo and Giulio, who undoubtedly collaborated with their father on this painting. However, as head of the atelier, Francesco would have been responsible for the most important elements such as composition, iconography, the finer details of each work and, above all, its style.

The acquisition of this fine Holy Family complements the NGV’s holdings of sixteenth-century Italian devotional painting, particularly from Bologna, with works by Prospero Fontana, Guido Reni and Annibale Carracci. The Francia is the earliest work of this group and, as a classic example of High Renaissance painting, it is a perfect starting point to appreciate the development of Bolognese art through to the early seventeenth century.

As a senior and reasonably well-travelled artist, Francia would have been aware of the rapid artistic developments taking place in Rome and Florence. The perfectly balanced triangular composition reflects the influence of the most innovative of Renaissance masters, Leonardo, and even more so, Raphael, who Francia knew personally. In stylistic terms he must have been sensitive to the radical employment of illusionism that was innovative at this time. He would have known of the effect that humanism was having on the icon-ography of religious painting, especially in the portrayal of the psychological and physical relationships between the Holy Family and the most important saints, such as John the Baptist. These qualities are present in this work and, as something of a journeyman, Francia should be viewed as a key artist who conveyed Renaissance values through-out Northern Italy.

This painting presents a classic Renaissance pyramid-shaped composition centred on the Virgin Mary, who is seated between the two holy children. To the left the baby Jesus gingerly walks towards his mother, while to the right the equally unsteady Saint John balances the group. The trellis of climbing roses surrounding the group forms a hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, a Franciscan symbol for the Virgin’s chaste self-containment; the Virgin herself was often referred to as a rose without thorns. The landscape in the background is divided into two parts which, again, conveys a religious message. To the right a dead tree stands on a steep path on an arid hill: this is the road of vice, populated by people without belief. To the left a young tree is situated on a verdant, rolling hill where, on a tranquil path, a monk is preaching the Christian message to a pilgrim. This iconography would have been immediately understood by Francia’s audience, while his more naturalistic treatment of the main protagonists may have caused some surprise. Francia here has blended the old fashioned with a more innovative approach to composition and form. His was a gentle way to introduce modern advances in painting to his patrons.

The acquisition of this painting adds depth and scope to an already rich collection, while it stands alone as a true masterpiece. It is also a truly beautiful painting that is in remarkably excellent condition.

Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).