The Flight into Egypt

This beautifully preserved copper is a superb example of Carlo Maratti's high baroque classicism at its most fluent and refined. Datable to circa 1664, the picture depicts the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, an episode recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:13-23), in which Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus traveled to Egypt seeking refuge from the threat of King Herod, who wanted to kill the newborn child. Unlike earlier representations of the subject, in which the Holy Family is shown resting in an edenic landscape or with Mary holding the Christ child while seated on a donkey, here Mary hands the Christ child to Joseph across a waterfall as she looks back in trepidation, a striking dramatic invention much admired by Maratti's contemporaries.

The present painting is an autograph reduction of a large altarpiece that was commissioned from Maratti in 1661 by Pope Alexander VII Chigi for the Cappella del Voto in the right transept of the Duomo in Siena. The chapel, which houses a miraculous image of the Madonna, was rebuilt beginning in 1658 on the design of a local architect, Benedetto Giovanelli. Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to plan and supervise the decoration of the cylindrically-shaped chapel, which included an elaborate gilded bronze frame for the image of the Madonna as well as four over-lifesize marble statues of saints. Between 1661 and 1663, Bernini himself carved the St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalene for the niches flanking the entrance to the chapel, while the other pair, representing St. Catherine and San Bernardino, were executed for the niches flanking the altar by Bernini's most gifted pupils, Ercole Ferrata and Antonio Raggi. To complete what Stella Rudolph has called one of the most perfect syntheses of high baroque Roman art achieved during the Chigi papacy (written communication, 4 October 1998), Alexander commissioned Maratti to furnish two large lateral canvases depicting The Visitation and The Flight into Egypt, an honor that testifies to the esteem in which the 35-year-old artist--whose prestigious clientele was by then not only Roman, but also English and Spanish--was held (Rudolph, 2008, op. cit., p. 46).

Although Maratti received the commission in 1661, a record of payment in December 1663 indicates that he had not by then begun the paintings. He must have executed them in an unusually short period of time, as the final payment was made in September 1664. Rudolph has pointed out that they would have been largely finished by 29 April 1664, when Pope Alexander visited the artist's studio to see them. (ibid., p. 48). Sent with its pendant from Rome in August of that year, The Flight into Egypt was installed on the right wall of the Cappella del Voto between the niches with Bernini's St Jerome and Ferrata's St. Catherine. It remained in the chapel until 1781, when removed by Principe Sigismondo Chigi, who had it replaced with a copy in mosaic in 1793. He kept the original in his villa at Castelfusano until after the Second World War, when it passed into the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini, Rome (Rudolph, 2000, op. cit., p. 462).

In his Life of the artist, Maratti's good friend and biographer, Giovan Pietro Bellori, devotes a lengthy and eloquent passage to the painting:

The pope [Alexander VII Chigi] continued to extend his grace toward Carlo, hence he commissioned from him for the sumptuous chapel in the cathedral of the city of Siena, the Visitation of Saint Elizabeth and the Flight into Egypt. In the latter he repeated his earlier invention of the Virgin crossing the stream, but with a different conceit: Saint Joseph, in order to make the way easy for her and to support her, has one foot on the bank and the other on a stone in the middle of the water; in this attitude he holds out his hands to receive the Child from the Virgin who, as she holds him out, turns anxiously to look back in fear lest she be overtaken in her flight. He added little angels and cherubs there who accompany and serve as guides on the wild and solitary path, with willow trees by the water ('The Life of Carlo Maratti,' in Giovan Pietro Bellori. The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects. A New Translation and Critical Edition, A.S. Wohl et. al., eds., Cambridge and New York, 2010, p. 402).

The 'earlier invention' to which Bellori refers is The Flight into Egypt which Maratti had painted for the Alaleona chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph in the church of San Isidoro Agricola, Rome, in 1653-1654 (fig. 1). In the San Isidoro picture, Joseph and Mary, who cradles the sleeping Christ child in her arms, are shown solemnly walking toward a wooden footbridge set over a small river waterfall. In the later composition, Maratti has inventively transformed this calm incident into a dynamic and psychologically compelling scene of the Holy Family actually fording the cascading river, accompanied by animated cherubim in the clouds above. The Christ child, now lively and awake, reaches out to Joseph, who leans forward protectively to take him in his arms, as Mary looks back in fear. The drama of the moment is underscored by the energy of the figures' poses, their swirling voluminous draperies, especially those of Joseph, and by the glowing palette of pure, bright colors.

Bellori writes that this narrative invention was so pleasing to Pope Alexander VII that 'he wished to have a little painting of it on copper for his chamber, which the same Carlo completed with diligence.' (Wohl, op. cit., p. 402). According to Rudolph, the copper was probably commissioned by the pope in 1664, just after he saw the completed canvas in Maratti's studio in Rome (ibid.). Although the copper replica that Maratti made at the Pope's request has been traditionally identified as that now preserved in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini, Rome (inv. 160; 60 x 43 cm.), Rudolph has observed that the present copper, which is in some passages slightly suaver in execution, more delicate in touch and characterization, is an equally likely candidate (S. Rudolph, written communication, 4 October 1998). She has further suggested that Maratti would have painted both coppers at the same time (possibly propped up on the same easel), just before he sent the finished canvas to Siena in 1664, using it therefore as the model (ibid.). While the canvas has a rounded top, however, the two coppers are rectangular in format, and also expand the landscape setting, particularly on the right. Rudolph has noted that the present copper shows unique variations in some of its details -- such as the cloud formations, shape of the mountain, and the more clearly articulated strips of receding terrain -- indicating that at this stage of his career, Maratti produced replicas of his most important new 'inventions' with subtle modifications, aimed at making the fresh version an original (ibid.).

The provenance of the Corsini copper can be traced back only as far as Cardinal Giuseppe Renato Imperiali (1651-1737), who had it engraved by J. Frey in 1735 when in his collection (fig. 2) (ibid.). The first recorded mention of the present copper is from around the same time, when it was listed by Knapton in his 1746 catalogue of the pictures in the collection of John Spencer at Althorp House. Rudolph has observed that after the death of Alexander's nephew, Cardina Flavio Chigi, in 1693, pictures began to be sold from the family's palaces and villas. Although Cardinal Imperiali may have acquired the pope's copper at around this time, she points out it is equally possible it was acquired then by a Spencer, either on a Grand Tour or via one of their family's agents (ibid.).

The present picture will be included in Dr. Stella Rudolph's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's works.

London, British Institution, 1821, no. 53.

(Possibly) G. P. Bellori, Le vite de' pittori scultori ed architetti moderni, 1675-1695, ed. E. Borea, Turin, 1976, p. 585.

G. Knapton, Catalogue of the Pictures at Althorpe and Wimbeldon belonging to the late Honorable Mr. Spencer, 25 October 1746, no. 298, in 'The Picture Clossett', 'The flight into Egypt by Carlo Moratto'.

A Catalogue of the pictures at Althorp taken in the year 1750, in 'The Picture Closet', 'Our Saviour, The Virgin & St. Christopher by Carl: Maratt.'.

H. Walpole, ms. notebook of 1759, published as Horace Walpole's Journals of Visits to Country Seats trans. and ed. P. Toynbee in The Walpole Society, Oxford, 1927-1928, XVI, p. 31, 'Virgin giving Child to St. Christopher over a river, small from the large one at Rome, but qu: if of Carlo Maratti'.

F. T. Dibdin, Aedes Althorpianae: or an account of the mansion, books, and pictures, at Althorp, the residence of George John Earl Spencer, to which is added a supplement of the Bibliotheca Spenceriana, London, 1822, p. 30.

D. Morton, Catalogue of the Pictures at Althorp House, in the county of Northampton: with occasional notices, biographical or historical, privately printed, 1851.

K. J. Garlick, 'A Catalogue of Pictures at Althorp', in The Walpole Society, XLV, 1976, p. 57, no. 438.

S. Rudolph in E. Borea and C. Gasparri, ed., L'idea del Bello: Viaggio per Roma nel Seicento con Giovan Pietro Bellori, exhibition catalogue, Rome, 2000, II, p. 462, under no. 5.

S. Rudolph, I dipinti eseguiti da Carlo Maratti nel 1663-1664 per la cappella del Voto nel Duomo in Le Pitture del Duomo di Siena, Cinisello Balsamo, 2008, p. 51.


Possibly commissioned by Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1599-1667) in 1664.

The Hon. John Spencer (1708-1746), Althorp House, Northamptonshire, and by descent within the Spencer family.

Private collection, U.S.

About Carlo Maratti

Italian, 1625-1713, Camerano, Italy, based in Rome, Italy

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