The Penitent Magdalene

Among the most faithful and celebrated disciples of Leonardo da Vinci, Giampietrino has only recently been identified as Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, an artist who appears in documents of Leonardo's Milanese workshop between 1497 and 1500 as 'gian petro'. A gifted painter of altarpieces and devotional works, Giampietrino also became known for his depictions of classical and biblical heroines, which are often imbued with erotic overtones. Giampietrino's pictures were renowned during his lifetime, and would reverberate in the work of his contemporary, Correggio, and in that of Giulio Cesare Procaccini and Daniele Crespi in the 17th century.

The present picture depicts the penitent prostitute Mary Magdalene in the mountain grotto where, according to the Golden Legend, she spent the last years of he life in spiritual contemplation. The dark Leonardesque background with rocky outcroppings alludes to this setting, and the alabaster jar at lower right, an attribute of the saint, refers to the ointment she used to cleanse Christ's feet during the dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7: 36-50).

Unknown to scholars until 2006, this picture was first published by Cristina Geddo, who has observed that the style, iconography, and sublime formal qualities of the painting leave no doubt that this work should be added to the corpus of beautiful sinners attributed to the artist (C. Geddo,op. cit., p. 291). Recent cleaning has revealed Giampietrino's refined technique, in particular the delicacy with which the Magdalene's softly illuminated, abundantly flowing hair has been executed, a virtuoso pictorial effect unmatched by any of Leonardo's other followers. Infrared photographs taken at the time also revealed several pentimenti, notably in the area of the figure's eyes and in the curve of her nose, suggesting that the artist slightly adjusted the Magdalene's gaze in the final composition. At the base of the Magdalene's neck, imprints of the artist's own fingers were also discovered -- a trademark of Giampietrino's technique that, according to Geddo, he learned from Leonardo (C. Geddo, La Madonna di Castel Vitoni del Giampietrino, Achademia Leonardi Vinci, VII, 1994, p. 59 and n. 15).

The subject of the Penitent Magdalene is ideally suited to the seductive mixture of the spiritual and erotic that underlies Giampietrino's depictions of historical heroines. She was a favorite subject of the artist: Christina Geddo has identified around fifteen autograph versions, of which the present picture is among the few remaining in private hands (private communication, 23 September 2012). Giampietrino's depictions of the theme must have met with enormous success, as numerous contemporary replicas and variants, produced in part by his workshop, attest. Geddo has identified two principal compositional types used by the artist. In the first type the saint is turned to the left, her hands clasped in prayer, as exemplified by the Penitent Magdalene in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (fig. 1). The present picture belongs to the second type, in which the Magdalene is turned to the right with her arms crossed over her chest. Two additional autograph versions of this latter composition are known: one in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan (fig. 2), and the second in the Cathedral of Burgos.

Geddo considers the Brera version datable to circa 1521 and the earliest of the three, due to its greater reliance on Leonardo's example. The Magdalene's delicately bent proper left hand, for instance, derives from Leonardo's Lady with the Ermine in Wawel Castle, Krakow, which also seems to have inspired her gently modeled flesh and the slight strabismus of her wide-set eyes. The present painting shows a number of modifications relative to the Brera version, reflecting a more individual and fully mature style and a greater emphasis on the figure's sensuous beauty.

Giampietrino has accentuated the physicality and expressiveness of the Magdalene, who now conveys a more stirring sense of religious devotion. As Geddo notes, the lowered perspective and torsion of the Magdalene's chest contribute to a sense of dynamic upward movement, absent from the Brera version (C. Geddo, op. cit., p. 296). Her body is robust and strongly modeled, with the musculature of her arm more clearly articulated. Her face is slightly more foreshortened as she turns further in the direction of the viewer, her intense gaze and parted lips evoking both devotion and sensuality. Perhaps most striking is the greater emphasis the Magdalene's artfully arranged, sumptuously flowing hair, which is tied in a bow at her hip serving to both hide and accentuate her nudity. The shining, luxuriant curls are interwoven with golden highlights drawn with the tip of the brush.

Geddo dates the present painting to the mid-to-late 1520s, close in time to the stylistically comparable Adoration of the Christ Child with St. Roch in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan (inv. 94). Geddo considers the painting in Burgos, perhaps executed with workshop assistance, as the last of the three versions of this compositional variant. Heavier and more conventionally Leonardesque than our painting -- attributed, in fact, to Leonardo in the past -- this latter picture shows the stylistic regression characteristic of Giampietrino's late work. Geddo considers the present picture the most beautiful of the three autograph versions of this composition, created at the apex of Giampietrino's artistic parabola, and exemplifying the stupefying modernity of the artist's most accomplished works (C. Geddo, op. cit., p. 296).

Thanks to its prestigious public location, the Burgos version became well-known via many replicas and variants, while the present picture is, according to Geddo, a unique example. It must therefore have been unknown in its day except, as she notes, to Titian, whose celebrated Penitent Magdalene in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (fig. 3) perhaps not coincidentally recalls it in the position of the arms, extravagant coiffure, and rapt devotion of the saint.

Evidence on the verso of the panel allows us to trace the present work to the middle of the 18th century. When the painting was offered for sale in London in 1824, it was listed as having come from the collection of Count Karl Joseph von Firmian, the Austrian ambassador to Naples in 1753 and Imperial Governor in Milan from 1759. He helped found the Brera library in Milan and his impressive collection of prints is now housed in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples. The picture was eventually sold to Count Johann Philipp Karl Stadion, Austrian Governor General of Milan, Minister of the Exterior (1805-1809) during the Napoleonic wars, and later Minister of Finance (1815-1823). Sometime before 1824, Henry Howard of Corby Castle purchased the picture from Count Stadion and relocated it to England, where he eventually sold it in 1829. The painting reappeared on the Paris art market in 2004, having been lost to notice for seventy-five years.

We are grateful to Dottoressa Cristina Geddo, whose forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Giampietrino will include the present lot, and to Dr. Mauro Natale, who has also endorsed the fully autograph status of the present painting (private communication, 22 June 2012).

C. Geddo, 'Una Nuova Maddalena del Gianpietrino', Il più dolce lavorare che sia, Mélanges en l'honneur de Mauro Natale, Milano, 2009, pp. 291-297.

C. Geddo, Giovan Pietro Rizzoli, il Gianpietrino. L'opera completa, forthcoming.

PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN

Count Karl Joseph Firmian (1716-1782), Austrian Governor-General of Milan.

Johann Philipp Carl Joseph, Count Stadion-Warthausen (1763-1824), from whom purchased by

Henry Howard (1757-1842), Corby Castle; Anonymous Sale, Christie's, London, 29 May 1824, lot 28, as 'Bernardino Luini': 'The Magdalen, by Bernardino Luini, the able disciple of Leonardo da Vinci, formerly in the gallery of Count Firmian, governor of Lombardy. This Magdalen is the same personage as is represented in the celebrated Picture of the Crucifixion, by Luini, in the Convent of the Capuchin Friars at Lugano, and its originality is attested by Pelagi and Stambacchi, two celebrated Painters at Milan, where it was bought.' (unsold at 67 gns.); Reoffered, introduced by permission in Lord Liverpool's (†+) sale, [The Property of a Man of Fashion who purchased them some years ago in Italy], Christie's, London, 25 May 1829, lot 1A, as 'Bernardino Luini': 'A Magdalen; a very exquisite and highly finished picture of this distinguished pupil of L. da Vinci; purchased by the proprietor from Count Stadion, at Millan -- in high preservation' (70 gns. to Maxwell, 6 Maddox Street (?)).

Anonymous sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 23 June 2004, lot 42, as 'Attributed to Giovanni Pedrini Ricci, called Gianpetrino'.

Private collection, Paris, by 2006.

Acquired by the present owner by 2009.

About Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, called Il Giampietrino

Italian , active ca. 1495-1540, based in Milan, Italy