Altarpiece of the Sapienza Vecchia
173 * 147 cm
Hall 31 — 2nd floor
The Virgin sits on a high, richly gilded throne, her eyes lowered as two angels place a crown on her head. Held in his mother’s arms, the Child smiles joyfully as he clings to her tenderly. To the right of the throne, the standing figure of Saint Nicholas is intent on his reading, while on the left is Saint Gregory the Great: the saints’ attributes rest on the steps in front of the throne. The backdrop is a variegated landscape of hills, trees and buildings.
The inscription in letters of gold that runs along the edge of the Virgin’s cloak reads: (A.) D· MDXVIII – DOMENICO PINXIT – A · D · DOMENICUS FECIT (Anno Domini 1518 – Domenico painted – Anno Domini – Domenico made).
When he attributed the complete work to the hand of Alfani, Gnoli pointed out that the figure of the Virgin is a copy of the Madonna and Child or Mackintosh Madonna painted by Raphael around 1509 and now held by the National Gallery in London, while the figure of Saint Nicholas derives from the similar one painted by Luca Signorelli in the Sant’Onofrio Altarpiece now in the Perugia Cathedral Museum.
Considered Alfani’s masterpiece, this altarpiece used to be housed in the chapel of the Sapienza Vecchia or Gregorian College in the Eburnea Gate, Perugia, an institution established in the fourteenth century by Cardinal Capocci as the College of the Scholars of Saint Gregory, a first model of university college in which the students would pay for their instruction. The Municipality of Perugia bought the painting in 1885 for the sum of Lire 40,000, so as to include it in its Painting Collection.
Raphael’s influence is very marked in this painting, not only in the figure of the Virgin, as described above, but also in the elaborate structure of the throne, whose niches and small figures in grisaille derive from the architecture painted by Raphael in his School of Athens between 1509 and 1511.
Discussing this, Adamo Rossi relates how Alfani based his work on a drawing by Raphael that was held in the Ceccomanni house in Perugia, before being taken to Britain. This is the cartoon that can now be seen in the British Museum in London, which was also employed as the model for the copy of the Mackintosh Madonna now in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.