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Admiring the Madonna at Palazzo Pitti 06/02/2011

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c. 1800

I happened lately to be at the Palazzo Pitti with a person who is perfectly well acquainted with all the pictures of any merit in Florence. While he explained the peculiar excellencies of Pietro’s manner, a gentleman in company (who, although he docs not pretend to the smallest skill in pictures, would rather remain ignorant for ever, than listen to the lectures of a connoisseur) walked on by himself into the other apartments, while I endeavoured to profit by my instructor’s knowledge. When the other gentleman returned, he said, ‘I know no more of painting than my pointer; but there is a picture in one of the other rooms which I would rather have than all those you seem to admire so much; it is the portrait of a healthy handsome countrywoman, with her child in her arms. I cannot help thinking the colour very natural. The young woman’s countenance is agreeable, and expressive of fondness and the joy of a mother o’er a first born. The child is a robust chubby-checked fellow, such as the son of a peasant should be.’

We followed him into the room, and the picture which pleased him so much was the famous Madonna della Seggiola of Raphael. Our instructor immediately called out, ‘Viva’ and pronounced him a man of genuine taste; because without previous knowledge or instruction, he had fixed his admiration on the finest picture in Florence. But this gentleman, as soon as he understood what the picture was, disclaimed all title to praise; ‘Because’, said he, ‘although when I considered that picture simply as the representation of a blooming country wench hugging her child, I admired the art of the painter, and thought it one of the truest copies of nature I ever saw; yet I confess my admiration is much abated, now that you inform me his intention was to represent the Virgin Mary.’ ‘Why so?’ replied the Cicerone; ‘the Virgin Mary was not of higher rank: she was but a poor woman, living in a little village in Galillee’, ‘No rank in life,’ said the other, ‘could give additional dignity to the person who had been told by an angel from Heaven, that she had found favour with God; that her son should be called the Son of the Highest, and who herself was conscious of all the miraculous circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. In the countenance of such a woman, besides comeliness, and the usual affection of a mother, I looked for the most lively expressions of admiration, gratitude, virgin modesty, and divine love. And when I am told, the picture is by the greatest painter that ever lived, I am disappointed in perceiving no traces of that kind in it.’

What justice there is in this gentleman’s remarks, I leave it to better judges than I pretend to be, to determine.

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