Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist

Andrea del Sarto (Andrea d'Agnolo) (Italian, Florence 1486–1530 Florence)
Oil on wood
53 1/2 x 39 5/8 in. (135.9 x 100.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 1922
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 609
This grand Holy Family was painted in 1528 or 1529 for the Florentine Giovanni Borgherini, who was prominent during the city’s brief-lived Republic, before the Medici family re-established their rule. Christ shares his orb with his cousin, Saint John, Florence’s patron saint—a symbolism adopted by the Republican government. Sarto was known as "the painter without defects," and this reputation is fully evident in the masterful drawing of the figures, the nobility and complexity of their gestures, and the sumptuous color. The frame is of the late sixteenth century, possibly Florentine.
#5076. The Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist
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According to Giorgio Vasari, The Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist, one of the artist’s greatest late works, was painted for the Florentine Giovanni Borgherini. The biographer described the subject of the painting as "the Virgin, an infant St. John the Baptist who offers Christ the globe of the world, and a head of St. Joseph, very beautiful," also comparing it to Andrea’s contemporaneous Charity (National Gallery of Art, Washington), to which it is closely related compositionally, and including it in a discussion of paintings done at the time of the siege of Florence in 1529–30 (Vasari 1568, and Shearman 1965 for the Charity). It remained in the Borgherini family at least until the end of the sixteenth century, and was one of the artist’s most admired and copied compositions. The majesty of its design, remarkable color harmonies, and carefully choreographed and deeply felt rapport between the figures have always made it stand out in the oeuvre of an artist known to his contemporaries as "the painter without defects."

The most notable action in the composition, that of Saint John holding the terrestrial globe—symbol of temporal power—extended in his arms while the Christ child reaches forward to grasp it, has a very precise meaning tied to the patron’s ideas and the moment at which the painting was created. Giovanni Borgherini (died 1559) was a passionate supporter of the short-lived Republican government that came to power in Florence in 1527, replacing Medici rule. Some years earlier he had traveled to Venice to study the government of its Republic and he appeared as an enthusiast in a famous Dialogue, Donato Giannotti’s Della Repubblica de’ Veneziani (probably composed 1525). Following his return to Florence in 1526 Borgherini married Selvaggia Capponi, whose father, Niccolò, became the gonfaloniere of the city after the Medici were overthrown.

Capponi and others in the government were drawn to the rhetoric and theocracy of the previous Republican moment in Florence, that of the preacher Savonarola in the 1490s. But it was Borgherini who succeeded in creating, through Andrea del Sarto’s art, a visual expression of Savonarola’s principles. Savonarola’s last sermon (December 1494), asserts that only Christ can be the true ruler of Florence: "Come on, Florence, what do you want, what leader, what king can give himself to you . . . God wants to make you happy and give you . . . a king to govern you. And this is Christ . . . Our Lord wants to rule you himself, if you want . . . take Christ for your king and live under his law." Not only did the Florentine Council, under Capponi’s direction, pledge to elect Christ their King, but in February 1528 an inscription to that effect was placed over the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria (O’Gorman 1965, Gilbert 1977, and Cecchi 1989 and 1996). As Saint John the Baptist was historically the city’s patron saint, his action shows a transfer of power and allegiance (or, in some interpretations, a sharing of that power) that, above all, leaves out other rulers, especially the Medici. The Republican moment was cut short when Florence was besieged by Imperial troops from October 1529 to August 1530, so that Charles V could be seen to support Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici). With the capitulation of the city, the pope installed Alessandro de’ Medici as its ruler. Borgherini was forced to beg for pardon in September 1530, which happened to be the month of the artist’s death. The painting was almost certainly done in 1528 or 1529.

A small group of preparatory drawings in the Uffizi and Louvre are related to the composition (Di Pietro 1910, Fraenckel 1935, Berenson 1961, Freedberg 1963, Monti 1965, and Shearman 1965). In these the artist studied the head of Saint John the Baptist, various hands, Christ’s left leg and the fall of the Virgin’s drapery, as well as the cushion and the overall composition. Shearman (1959) suggested that the Saint Joseph might be a self-portrait of the artist, comparing it to purported self-portraits in paintings of the Assumption done for the Passerini and Panciatichi families and a drawn copy of one of the heads now in Windsor.

The Borgherini Holy Family belonged to the Rinuccini family and, by descent, to the Corsini family in Florence in the nineteenth century, and was sold to Charles Fairfax Murray in London in 1905. It was often thought of as one of the numerous versions produced by the school, but its proper attribution was asserted in print by Bryson Burroughs when it was purchased in 1922 and has never subsequently been questioned.

[Andrea Bayer 2012]
Giovanni Borgherini, Florence (until 1559); Vincenzio Borgherini, Florence (1559–1597?); marchese Pier Francesco Rinuccini, Florence (possibly by 1845–52; cat., [1845?], p. 7, room 4, no. 34; his sale, Hôtel des Ventes, Paris, December 6, 1852, no. 1, as School of Andrea del Sarto); [Vignier, 1852 (as agent for Rinuccini family?)]; principessa Corsini (Eleonora Rinuccini), Palazzo Corsini, Florence (1852–d. 1886); her son, principe Tommaso Corsini, Florence (1886–1901); [Haskards and Co., Ltd., Palazzo Antinori, Florence, 1901; sold to Agnew]; [Agnew, London, 1901–5; sold to Fairfax Murray]; Charles Fairfax Murray, London (1905–d. 1919; posthumous sale, Christie's, London, July 5, 1920, no. 62, to Durlacher); [Durlacher, New York, 1920–22; sold to MMA]
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January 7–March 16, 1907, no. 31 (lent by C. Fairfax Murray).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 213.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Andrea del Sarto's 'Borgherini Holy Family'," October 14, 2015–January 10, 2016, no catalogue.

Giorgio Vasari. Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori. Ed. Gaetano Milanesi. 1906 ed. Florence, 1568, vol. 5, p. 52, describes the painting executed by Andrea del Sarto for Giovanni Borgherini.

J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Fourteenth Century. Vol. 3, London, 1866, p. 578, mention a painting in the Corsini collection, Florence, of the Virgin, child, young Baptist, and Saint Joseph on wood as by a pupil rather than by Andrea; note Vasari's description of the painting made for Giovanni Borgherini.

Gaetano Milanesi, ed. Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori. By Giorgio Vasari. Vol. 5, 1906 ed. Florence, 1880, vol. 5, p. 52 n. 2, notes that he saw this painting for sale in Florence in 1852.

H. Guinness. Andrea del Sarto. London, 1899, pp. 93–94, lists a painting in the Corsini Gallery as an old copy of the Borgherini Holy Family described by Vasari and offered for sale in 1852.

O. v[on]. Schleinitz. Kunstchronik, n.s., 18 (February 22, 1907), col. 242, attributes it to the school of Andrea del Sarto.

Filippo di Pietro. I disegni di Andrea del Sarto negli Uffizi. Siena, 1910, pp. 18, 74–75, mentions two old copies in the Museo di San Marco and in the Uffizi; publishes drawings for it in the Uffizi; mentions this painting as in the Murray collection.

F. Mason Perkins. Letter to d'Hendecourt. December 11, 1920, attributes it to Andrea del Sarto.

B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "A Holy Family by Andrea del Sarto." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 17 (June 1922), pp. 123–24, ill. (cover), states that this painting is the one that Vasari describes; notes Filippo di Pietro's [see Ref. 1920] connection between this painting and the drawings in the Uffizi, Florence; states that this painting was sold from Fairfax Murray's collection at auction to Durlacher & Co.; calls it an "undoubtable example of the latest and most powerful period of Andrea del Sarto's art".

W. S. Spanton. An Art Student and His Teachers in the Sixties with Other Rigmaroles. London, 1927, p. 114, notes that Fairfax Murray lent the painting to Dulwich, and that it was withdrawn at his death.

Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 19, lists it as a work by Andrea del Sarto.

Ingeborg Fraenckel. Andrea del Sarto: Gemälde und Zeichnungen. Strasbourg, 1935, pp. 86–87, 159, 182, 233 n. 82, pl. XI, dates it about 1526 and thinks it was designed and begun by Andrea del Sarto; publishes drawings for it in the Louvre, Paris (no. 1714, recto and verso).

I[ngeborg]. Fraenckel in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 29, Leipzig, 1935, p. 474, lists it as a painting by Andrea, presumably worked over by another artist.

Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 65–66, ill., calls it one of Andrea's late works and identifies it as the picture described by Vasari as painted for Giovanni Borgherini; notes that there are several preparatory sketches for it in the Louvre, Paris, and in the Uffizi, Florence.

John Shearman. "Andrea del Sarto's Two Paintings of the Assumption." Burlington Magazine 101 (April 1959), p. 127, identifies the head of Saint Joseph as a self-portrait, comparing it with the self-portraits in the Passerini and Panciatichi Assumptions in the Pitti Palace, Florence.

Edward Sanchez. Letter to Clare Le Corbeiller. March 1, 1960, connects this painting with one sold by Vincenzo Borgherini to Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici in 1579, mentioned in documents in the State Archive of Florence.

Bernard Berenson. I disegni dei pittori fiorentini. Milan, 1961, vol. 1, p. 428; vol. 2, p. 15, under no. 90, p. 16, under no. 98, p. 25, under no. 127, p. 31, under no. 154; vol. 3, fig. 849, calls it a "masterpiece of the 'grand manner'" by Andrea and dates it to his late but not final period; lists the drawings for it in the Uffizi, Florence, and the drawing in the Louvre, Paris.

Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol.1, p. 10.

S[ydney]. J. Freedberg. Andrea del Sarto. Cambridge, Mass., 1963, text vol., pp. 79–80, 84–85, fig. 194; catalogue raisonné vol., pp. 153–56, no. 68, dates it about 1527 and identifies it with the painting described by Vasari as painted for Giovanni Borgherini; quotes the Medici documents regarding the purchase in 1579 from Vincenzo Borgherini by Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici; lists preparatory drawings in the Uffizi, Florence, and the Louvre, Paris, and lists copies.

John Shearman. Andrea del Sarto. Oxford, 1965, vol. 1, p. 109, pls. 163a, 164a (overall and detail); vol. 2, pp. 276–78, no. 90, notes its close relationship to a painting of Charity in the National Gallery of Art, Washington; catalogues it among the authentic paintings by Andrea del Sarto, identifying it with the one painted for Giovanni Borgherini; agrees with Vasari's dating (about 1529); rejects the identification with the painting sold by Vincenzo Borgherini to Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici in 1579.

Raffaele Monti. Andrea del Sarto. 1981 ed. Milan, 1965, pp. 108–10, 178 n. 176, ill. p. 109 (color), and fig. 267, accepts the attribution to Andrea del Sarto and dates it to the painter's late period, about 1528; identifies it with the one described by Vasari as executed for Borgherini; illustrates its preparatory drawings.

James F. O'Gorman. "An Interpretation of Andrea del Sarto's 'Bogherini [sic] Holy Family'." Art Bulletin 47 (December 1965), pp. 502–4, fig. 1, interprets the iconographic theme as the transfer of Florentine allegiance from Saint John the Baptist to Christ as King of Florence and dates the painting between 1526 and 1530.

Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 198–200, ill., mention that according to Vasari this picture was painted for Giovanni Borgherini and that the motif of the handing of the globe by Saint John the Baptist to the Infant Christ symbolizes a doctrine promulgated by Savonarola to the effect that Florence transferred its allegiance from John the Baptist to Christ himself; call it a mature work, possibly painted about 1530.

Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 8, 350, 606.

Felix Gilbert. "Andrea del Sartos 'Heilige Familie Borgherini' und Florentinische Politik." Festschrift für Otto von Simson zum 65. Geburtstag. Ed. Lucius Grisebach and Konrad Renger. Frankfurt, 1977, pp. 284–88, ill., discusses the patron, Giovanni Borgherini, as an important member of the anti-Medici faction in Florence and as one of the protagonists of Gianotti's dialogue, "Della Repubblica de' Veneziani," the subject of which was an ideal republic; notes a biblical justification for republican government in Samuel's speech to the Israelites; points out that when Florentine republicans gave Christ the title "the King of the Florentine People" this implied that there could be no other temporal monarch; believes the painting shows Christ and the Baptist together as protectors of Florence's republican freedoms; dates the painting to between April 1528, when Christ was declared "Rex populi Florentini," and April 1529, when the Republic fell.

Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 252, 254, fig. 454 (color).

Alessandro Cecchi in Andrea del Sarto, 1486–1530: dipinti e disegni a Firenze. Exh. cat., Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Milan, 1986, p. 105, under no. X–XI, cites it as an example of Savonarolian republican ideologies.

Alessandro Cecchi in Andrea del Sarto: catalogo completo dei dipinti. Florence, 1989, p. 119, no. 56, ill., notes the unusual iconography and relates it to the republican sentiments of the patron, Giovanni Borgherini, and therefore accepts the date of about 1528; agrees with Shearman that this is not the painting sold by Vincenzo Borgherini to Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici in 1579.

Alessandro Cecchi in L'officina della maniera: Varietà e fierezza nell'arte fiorentina del Cinquecento fra le due repubbliche 1494–1530. Ed. Alessandro Cecchi and Antonio Natali. Exh. cat., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Venice, 1996, p. 62, ill. p. 59, discusses the political context of the painting, noting that Giovanni Borghesini was married to Selvaggia Capponi, wife of the Gonfaloniere during the siege of Florence.

Jaynie Anderson. Giorgione: The Painter of "Poetic Brevity". Paris, 1997, pp. 142–44, 351 n. 36, fig. 91 (color) [French ed., 1996], discusses the patron, Giovanni Borgherini, as an exponent of republicanism.

Carolyn C. Wilson. St. Joseph in Italian Renaissance Society and Art. Philadelphia, 2001, pp. 80, 93, 227 n. 212, p. 235 n. 12, p. 237 n. 34, pl. 69, states that the motif of Saint John the Baptist holding the terrestrial globe has led to historical and political interpretations of the painting, but notes that the hand steadying the cross on the globe belongs to Saint Joseph, symbolizing his role as earthly protector of Christ.

Old Master & British Paintings. Sotheby's, London. December 10, 2009, p. 47, under no. 150.

Andrea Donati. Michelangelo Buonarroti, Jacopino del Conte, Daniele Ricciarelli: Ritratto e figura nel manierismo a Roma. San Marino, 2010, p. 124.

Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 275, no. 180, ill. pp. 184, 275 (color).

Tableaux 1400–1900. Christie's, Paris. September 19, 2017, p. 5, under no. 3, mentions it as the original of a variant ascribed to the Circle of Andrea del Sarto (oil on wood, 28 3/8 x 21 7/8 in.).

An elegant late-sixteenth-century frame, possibly Florentine, parcel gilt and painted to simulate walnut.
This painting has several versions and copies, some of which, particularly those formerly in William Drury-Lowe's collection at Locko Park, Derbyshire, and the Corsini collection in Florence, have been confused with the MMA painting (Shearman 1965). The Museum's picture, however, has been identified as the primary version executed by Andrea del Sarto for the Florentine Giovanni Borgherini, based on several compositional drawings in the Uffizi, Florence, and the Louvre, Paris (Berenson 1961).
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