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The Holy Family

Artist: unknown, Italian
Year: Late 18th to early 19th century
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: H. 45”; w. 35”
Historic attribution: After Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1618-1682)
After Francesco Vanni (Italian, 1564-1610)
Exhibitions: Nashville Centennial Exposition, 1880
Provence: Purchased at the 1888 estate sale by J. Louis Valentino to his daughter Anne Christina Valentino to Belmont Mansion Association by purchase
83.09 Belmont Mansion Association purchase

This painting is listed in the 1881 Louisville Courier Journal Article as hanging in the Tete-a-tete Room. It is also listed in Adelicia’s will as to go to her daughter Pauline. According to a Nashville newspaper, at the time of the 1888 estate auction at Belmont, Lewis Valentino paid $23 for a painting of Murillo’s Holy Family. This painting which once again hangs in the Tete-a-tete Room was acquired from the daughter of purchaser of the painting at the Belmont Estate Sale. When the painting entered the Belmont Mansion collection in 1983 it was soon established that it was not after Murillo or the two other Holy families at Belmont after Guido Reni and Raphael in the same Louisville Courier Journal article. It has now been determined that Yale University Art Gallery has the original ca. 1599 painting from which Adelicia’s painting was copied. The original painting is by the Siena artist Francesco Vanni [1564-1619].[1] Yale acquired their painting in 2003. It is one of two paintings by this important artist in the Western Hemisphere. Most of Vanni’s work was commissioned alter pieces for churches in Italy and remain in their original locations. The Yale painting is titled, Rest on the Flight into Egypt put it is more affectingly known as Madonna della Pappa. Pappa is moistened bread that in this painting is being fed to the Christ Child. Modern scholarship feels that the Vanni painting was purchased from the artist by Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrato and taken by him to Rome. In Rome it was seen and copied by many artists. Starting with the paintings arrival in Rome there were several reproductive prints made. The painting does not appear in any records again till 1786 when it is in the Orlandini Collection in Senia.[2] By 1786 the painting is out of the art center at Rome and forgotten except for the many copies still in Rome. The Belmont painting could date as early as the end of the eighteenth century: making the painting around fifty years old when the Acklen art collection started being assembled. We do not know if the painting was purchased on Adelicia’s Grand Tour in 1865/66 or was purchased earlier from art dealers in New York or New Orleans. Most likely the Belmont painting was made from one of the copies in Rome for the tourist market. The Belmont painting is within an inch of the same size as the original painting. By the mid nineteenth century Francesco Vanni had fallen into obscurity.[3] The attribution to a more well-known “old master” such as Murillo was a better sell.

Mark Brown

[1] We are indebted to James Hooble, Curator of Art and Architecture at the Tennessee State Museum for this discovery. In 1983 he was on the Belmont Mansion Association board and received the Belmont painting from Miss Valentino.
[2] Marciari, John and Susanne Boorsch and other, Francesco Vanni: Art in Late Renaissance Siena. New Haven; Yale University Press. pp 138-141
[3] He does not appear in Painters Sculptors Architects and Engravers Painters Sculptors Architects and Engravers by Clara Erskine Clement published in 1875 or Samson’s Art Criticism by G. W. Samson in 1868. Vanni did not make the list of important Siena painters in the 1867 addition of Baedeker’s Handbook for Travelers. Although it appears that his Holy Family painting is reference by Baedeker as being at collegiate church of St. Quirico in part two page 33.

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