ROME – For centuries, Renaissance artist Pintoricchio was practically accused of blasphemy by those who contended he used Pope Alexander VI's young lover as the model for the Madonna in a wall painting that decorated the pontiff's private apartment.
That's nothing more than malicious speculation that became a hard-to-die myth, concludes a summer exhibit of Pintoricchio's works at Rome's Capitoline Museums.
One of the curators, Francesco Buranelli, branded as essentially "fake news" the notion that Pintoricchio's "Madonna with Child" was a portrait of Giulia Farnese. A stunning beauty with long, chestnut-colored tresses, Farnese came from an ambitious Italian noble family. Detractors dubbed her "the Bride of Christ" and "the pope's concubine."
Giorgio Vasari, a 16th century painter and biographer of artists, perpetuated the claim that "Madonna with Child was essentially a portrait of Farnese. The Capitoline show's organizers describe her as "the adolescent lover and not very hidden concubine" of Alexander VI, who was born as Rodrigo de Borgia.
The painting provoked so much scandal that Pope Alexander VII ordered the fresco removed more than five decades after he succeeded the previous Alexander. The 1492-1503 Borgia papacy was interwoven with a family dynasty of violence, jealousy and intrigue, the stuff of which eventually inspired a TV series.
The painting was ripped out and over time, its remaining fragments were thought to have been lost forever. But it turned out some of the original did survive.
In 2005, a fragment depicting Baby Jesus, rosy-cheeked and with his right foot held by the extended hand of Alexander VI, surfaced at an art market, said Buranelli, who for 11 years served as director the Vatican Museums.
Like key pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with its other pieces long scattered, the portrait of the infant Jesus is shown side-by-side in the exhibit's last room with another fragment: the Madonna that all the fuss was about.
That fragment was loaned by a private collection whose identity Buranelli wouldn't reveal. He described the display as the first public showing ever for the missing Madonna.
The fragment depicting the rest of the Borgia was likely destroyed under Alexander VII, Buranelli said.
The exhibit, which runs until Sept. 10, encourages visitors to draw their own conclusions in part by comparing other Madonnas painted by Pintoricchio.
The Madonna's slender nose, sweet oval-shaped face and nearly closed modest eyes strongly resemble those of the Virgin Mary in other Pintoricchio works in the show.
And it sharply contrasts with a portrait by Luca Longhi, painted around 1535 and titled "Lady with Unicorn." Thought to possibly depict Giulia Farnese, the round face, luminous eyes and flowing hair in that painting seem to match historical descriptions of the Borgia pope's lover.
Buranelli said dismantling the long-held legend about the Madonna portrait fits into recent efforts to evaluate the Borgia pope's accomplishments apart from the libertine legacy many associate him with. (Before becoming pontiff, he is believed to have fathered seven children by various mistresses.
That is "not to say rehabilitating him, but trying to judge him in the context of his times, in particular the political times in which he reigned," the curator said.
Elected pope the same year Columbus is credited for discovering the New World, the Borgia pope was considered a mediator and peace-maker as Europeans raced to colonize the Americas. A demarcation decided by Alexander VI split South America into spheres of Spanish and Portuguese influence, a papal legacy still felt today in the language divisions on that continent, Buranelli noted.
Curators hope the exhibit will travel, after the Pintoricchio Madonna gets a badly needed restoration.
In the 1970s, Pope Paul VI converted the Borgia apartment into an exhibit space for modern religious art, Buranelli said.
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