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Bolonga 1555 – 1619

Holy Family with St. Catherine

Oil on Canvas
52 x 63 cms  [20 ½  by 24 ¾ inches]

Painted 1583/4


The painting bears a seal on the back of the relining canvas, a coat of arms with a festooned cardinal’s hat above a splayed eagle and a wheel with six spokes. This has now been identified as those of Giovanni Carlo Molinari, Vicelegate and Apostolic Pronotory in Bologna from September 1741 to June 1744. Born in Milan, he was ordained in 1741, was assigned the Abbey of Chiaravalle and was named Vicelegate to Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini, later being elected to the Sacra Consulta. It has passed by family descent over at least a century to Count Otto de Almeida, Mondsee, Austria, until c. 1973; Alfred Brenner, Munich; Private Collection, Switzerland.


This unpublished work is arguably the most refined of a series of Holy Families that all date from the early 1580s, sometimes given to Annibale but increasingly recognized as Ludovico Carracci.. A number of drawings are associated with these, with the same child at slightly different ages giving a virtual chronology to the group. Some of these, like the life studies on Inv. 12 417 in the Cabinet des Dessins in the Louvre[1] are also connected with the decoration at Palazzo Fava, painted in 1583/5[2] by all three of the Carracci, and it is characteristic of their work at this time that some of the particular qualities of each should be reflected in their separate inventions.  Another drawing of the same child is in the Horne Museum, Florence, and was exhibited in I Carracci – Disegni Bologna, 1956, Cat. No 203, Fig. 95, as by Annibale Carracci[3]. Here he has a pose that is very close to the Christ Child in the present composition, and Ludovico here uses the same soft chiaroscuro that characterizes many of the life studies of the period, and indeed the frescoes of the stories of Jason in Palazzo Fava, like the ones with the enchantress Medea. The close relationship between the three Carracci is also underlined by the consideration that the child, particularly in the Horne Museum drawing, also has a close relationship with the suckling Christ Child in Agostino Carracci’s Madonna and Child with Ss. John, Benedict, Cecilia and Margaret of 1586 in the Galleria Nazionale Parma.

The series of Holy Families includes the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine at the Göteborg Konstmuseum (158 by 139 cm, exhibited in the Bologna Ludovico Carracci show, 1993, No. 12), the Holy Family with Saint Francis at Tatton Park ( 92,5 by 73 cm., repr. In Trust for the Nation, Paintings from National Trust Houses, 1995, No. 46 where exh. as ‘attributed to Annibale Carracci’), and the Holy Family with St. John the Baptist and St. Anne in Nantes (100 by 73,5 cm, Catalogue raisonné des peintures italiennes du musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 1994, No. 127, as ‘Annibale (?) Carracci). That these are not far apart in date is suggested by the comparative age of the same child, while the drawing of a composition closest to the Göteborg painting (Louvre Cabinet des Dessins, Inv. 6773; Loisel op. cit. 2004 No 2) has a young child very close in appearance to the one in the present picture. It is interesting that the tendency now is for the drawings to be given to Ludovico, and Sir Denis Mahon also views the present painting as coming from his hand. The impact of Correggio and Parmigianino, seen by Ludovico in neighbouring Parma, is evident in these compositions; the incredible play of light and drapery in the present work is typical of the artist’s hand in the sophisticated works of this period, which includes the Vision of St Francis in the Rijksmuseum, at present on loan to the National Gallery, London. The qualities of material and interpretation of surface in the hands show how much the artist relished the pattern that emerges from the complex mix of forms that he achieved. The pose of the Christ Child does not seem as contrived as that of the undulating body of Christ in the Deposition painted at the same period for the Tanari family, and now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York; but this is because here the composition as a whole has a more felicitous resolution of what is still an essentially Mannerist approach to design.

We are grateful to Sr. Denis Mahon for confirming the attribution on first hand inspection of the work and to Prof. Alessandro Brogi for also confirming the attribution from a transparency.



[1] C. Loisel, Ludovico Carracci, exh. Catalogue, Paris 2004, No. 1, r & v.; see also C. Loisel, Dessins italiens du Musée du Louvre, Ludovico, Agostino Annibale Carracci, 2004, p. 97, No. 1

[2] See the exhibition catalogue, Bologna 1584, Bologna, 1984, passim.

[3] It came from a large album of 94 drawings sold at Sotheby, 31 July, 1901, Lot 697, that seems to have belonged to Jonathan Richardson, Senior (1665-1745). Exhibited in the 1956 I Carracci exhibition (No. 95) as by Annibale, H. Bodmer already annotated the mount to give it to Ludovico, and it is now seen as a facet of the influence of the naturalism of the younger Carracci on his uncle.