Marcello Venusti, ‘The Holy Family (Il Silenzio)’, Christie's Old Masters

The composition of this elegant and well-preserved panel is one which Marcello Venusti repeated several times throughout his career. Other versions exist in Leipzig, Museum der Bildenden Künste (inv. 271); Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (inv. WLG 49); Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini (inv. 255); and London, National Gallery (inv. 1227). The Leipzig version, the artist's only signed and dated work (1563), forms the basis for attributing the related paintings to Venusti.

The image, known traditionally as Il Silenzio, or, The Silence, evokes depictions of the Pietà, in which Christ's dead body rests on the Madonna's lap in a similar position. The sands of the hourglass visible in the shadows of the bench at lower right are beginning to run out, and the young Saint John the Baptist, finger pressed gently to his lips, enjoins the viewer not to awaken the sleeping child.

The composition is based on a finished drawing, known as a 'presentation' drawing, by Michelangelo (1475-1564), possibly made as a gift for Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547) and now in the collection of the Duke of Portland, Welbeck Abbey (see F. Hartt, Michelangelo Drawings, New York, 1970, no. 437). Though the drawing was only rediscovered in 1951, an engraving by Giulio Bonasone (c. 1510-after 1576) from the 1550s indicates that the image was well-known from the 16th century.

The substantial number of surviving paintings by Venusti after Michelangelo's finished drawings, and the protection enjoyed by Venusti from Michelangelo's close friend, Tommaso dei Cavalieri, suggest a close relationship between the two artists. Venusti began his career in Mantua under Giulio Romano, but on 4 December 1541 he is listed as the best among the young artists studying Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, then just unveiled (J. Wilde, Cartonetti by Michelangelo, Burlington Magazine, CI, 1959, p. 373). Venusti later became an assistant to Perino del Vaga, and in 1548 painted a large copy of Michelangelo's Last Judgment for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. In the same year, he was commissioned to prepare cartoons of Michelangelo's designs for the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican, Rome, a responsibility with which he surely would not have been entrusted without Michelangelo's approval. Though the project was never completed due to the Pope's death, Venusti remained closely associated with Michelangelo for the rest of his career.

Some of the most engaging of Venusti's Michelangelesque compositions are small images like the present panel, in which the artist added thoughtful details and evocative domestic settings. Georg Kamp has noted several differences between Michelangelo's Il Silenzio and Venusti's versions of the composition. For example, Venusti has eliminated the headdress worn by the Madonna as well as the lightly sketched angels in the background. He has added the cross near Saint John and, in the Leipzig painting, a view through a window to an obelisk and a building beyond. In the latter work, the Madonna also draws a translucent gauzy veil over the sleeping Christ child, a motif that appears to have once existed in the present painting. The present work probably dates to between 1550 and 1560 (see G. Kamp, Marcello Venusti: religiöse Kunst im Umfeld Michelangelos, New York, 1993).


William Russell, London; (†+), Christie's, London, 5 December 1884, lot 200.

With Colnaghi's, London.

Nikodem Caro (1871-1935), Berlin, and by descent to the present owner.

About Marcello Venusti

Italy, 1512/15 - 1579, Como, Italy, based in Rome, Italy

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