Deceptive Simplicity: A Study of Mariotto Albertinelli’s Holy Family With the Adoration of the Child

Lisa Pietersma

So distressed was [Albertinelli] at losing Baccio that he was quite wild for a time. His passions being unruled, that of grief took entire possession of him. In his despair he vowed to give up painting; he declared that he would also become a monk, if it were not that he now hated them more than ever.[1] 

But though Albertinelli passed off his pseudo-hostdom [as tavern-keeper] with bravado, talking very wittily about it, the artistic vein was too strong within him to be subdued; he soon gave up the flask and returned to the brush…[2]

Mariotto Albertinelli was born in Florence on October 13, 1474; the son of gold-beater, he was an only child, and his mother died when he was just five years old.[3] The scholar Ludovico Borgo suggests that “since his father did not marry again until 1487 Mariotto must have spent most of his early youth exclusively under paternal care”.[4] He was trained in the workshop of Cosimo Rosselli and Piero di Cosimo, where he formed a close friendship with the painter Baccio della Porta, known to us as Fra Bartolommeo. Although Vasari reports that Albertinelli came to painting at the age of twenty, Borgo rejects this claim, but maintains, as Vasari notes, that it is likely the young Mariotto was “first initiated to the craft of gold-beating by his father before he developed an interest and inclination for painting”.[5] Albertinelli and Bartolommeo maintained close personal and professional ties long after leaving Rosselli’s workshop, and, despite different religious convictions, later opened a school together under the auspices of the Monastery of San Marco.[6] By far the most colourful biographical detail about Albertinelli’s life, if we are to believe Vasari, is the artist’s abrupt break with painting for the comfort and relative ease of owning and operating a tavern.[7] Despite the allure of such a story, Borgo has demonstrated that “taverns, just as farm land, [were] for Mariotto simply a form of financial investment and not an escape… from the challenge of artistic creation and the criticism of his colleagues”.[8]

The present study is concerned with Albertinelli’s tondo The Holy Family with the Adoration of the Child(Fig. 1), a work executed in oil and tempera on panel, wholly attributed to Albertinelli, and dated on the basis of style to approximately 1505. This charming painting was purchased in 2007 by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts after being de-accessioned in 1991-92 by the Detroit Institute of Arts, and constitutes the first Italian High Renaissance work to enter the museum collection.[9] In it, we see Joseph and Mary kneeling and praying before Christ child whose head is supported by a small bundle, presumably the family’s few possessions, suggesting that the painting depicts the scene known as Rest on the Flight into Egypt.[10] Joseph and Mary both gaze directly towards the ground where the serene Christ child rests in an ostentatio position. Joseph kneels with a rod balanced on his right shoulder while he prays before the child, who is shown gazing directly at the viewer, with his left hand articulated so that his index finger points to the left corner of his mouth, subtly referring to the Madonna lactans. The background visible between Mary and Joseph shows a remote landscape with only one small human dwelling clearly visible, although Albertinelli has added the silhouettes of other buildings to suggest a larger town further away. To Mary’s left, behind her shoulder, two figures are just visible: one walking along a path in the distance carrying a banner or flag of some description; the other mounted on a horse cresting the hill. Although the view of the painting includes slightly more of Mary’s dark cloak than Joseph’s ochre one,[11] the artist has conspicuously rendered both figures the same size, and placed their heads at precisely the same height, in mirror position of one another.

The main texts from which the iconography of the Holy Family tondo is drawn are the canonical account of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt as recorded in the book of Matthew, and in the apocryphal gospel known as the ‘Pseudo-Matthew’. From the biblical account, we learn that Joseph receives instructions from God through dreams which prescribe to him the duration and direction of the family’s journey:

(13) Now after [the Wise Men] left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him’. (14) Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, (15) and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’. [… ] (19) When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, (20) ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ (21) The Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. (22) But when he heard that [Herod’s son was ruling over Judea], he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. (23) There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’.[12]

From the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew comes the visual detail of the rod. In this text, which would have been familiar to most Medieval people,[13] all male widowers are summoned to the temple and given a rod with the intention that whoever receives a sign will be made Mary’s husband. Despite his age, Joseph is the one who receives the sign:

[Because Joseph] was an old man, he had been cast off, as it were, that he might not receive [Mary] … And when [Joseph] was humbly standing last of all, the high priest cried out to him with a loud voice, saying: Come, Joseph, and receive thy rod… And Joseph came up trembling, because the high priest had called him with a very loud voice. But as soon as he stretched forth his hand, and laid hold of his rod, immediately from the top of it came forth a dove whiter than snow, beautiful exceedingly, which, after long flying about the roofs of the temple, at length flew towards the heavens. Then all the people congratulated the old man, saying: Thou hast been made blessed in thine old age, O father Joseph, seeing that God hath shown thee to be fit to receive Mary.[14]

The particular moment depicted by Albertinelli is also recounted in the Meditations on the Life of Christ,where the emphasis is placed on imagining the suffering and hardship endured by the Holy Family as they traveled through Egypt:

[Jesus] was carried to Egypt by the very young and tender mother and by the aged, saintly Joseph, along wild roads, obscure, rocky, and difficult, through woods and uninhabited places – a very long Journey.[15]

Given the agency afforded to Joseph during the Flight into Egypt in the biblical account, and the saintliness of Joseph’s character which is emphasized in both the Pseudo-Matthew and the Meditations, it seems appropriate that Joseph appears the same size as Mary in Albertinelli’s Holy Family. However, in its own time, the foregrounding of Joseph as protector and provider of Mary and Jesus signaled an important shift away from a tradition which had previously obscured or excluded Joseph from depictions of Adoration scenes. In order to contextualize how this painting might have functioned and been perceived, it is necessary to first establish the setting in which it would have been viewed.


In her monumental study, The Florentine Tondo, scholar Roberta J.M. Olson presents the first major study of the genre since the work of Hauptmann in 1936. From the surviving inventories and current scholarship she surveys, Olson concurs with Hauptmann’s early theory that devotional tondi were predominantly “commissioned by lay individuals and placed in homes, frequently in the private camera of the householder”.[16]

One of the chief functions of paintings for private homes then, as now, was decoration, and Albertinelli’s tondo would certainly have been a beautiful adornment to any Florentine family’s home. From historical documents, such as the account books of Francesco Datini (1335-1410), known to us as the Merchant of Prato, we know that paintings formed an important part of the adornment of his home. From his notes, we learn that “[i]n addition to the fresco of St. Christopher over his threshold, he had three sacred pictures in his bedroom, one in each of his guest-rooms, and one in his office”.[17] Datini, whose wealth was comparable to his contemporary Giovanni de’ Medici,[18] surely must represent the more privileged end of the population, and this is not out ofkeeping with what we know of Albertinelli’s milieu, which included some of the more powerful art connoisseur and collectors of his day, including Alfonsina Orsina.[19] The association Albertinelli enjoyed with powerful Florentine families and the well-established workshop of Rosselli would provide a definitive statement of the owner’s wealth and status. Datini’s text also signals other possible functions that The Holy Family may have served: namely, a mild apotropaic function in the form of protection of the family home, and the promise of fertility tor the married couple.

Notably, the paintings in Datini’s master bedroom are listed after mention of the fresco of St. Christopher, who we know was frequently placed above doorways in niches on the exterior of homes, churches, or other buildings, to guard the structure from harm.[20] Evidence suggests that tondi may have also been placed high on the walls within the camera of the home, suggesting a similar protective role for these images. An anonymous wood cut illustration dated 1496, shows what is clearly a tondo of a Madonna and Child with attendant figures, placed above eye level on a mensola in the chamber of a home.[21] Above the tondo, angels on clouds float over the scene depicted, reinforcing the link between the image and a protective function. Olson finds another possible image of a tondo in an artist’s depiction of an interior camera in, what she calls, “the ghost of a tondo in Andrea del Sarto’s damaged monochrome fresco of The Birth of St. John the Baptist”, painted in 1526.[22] Upon close inspection of this image, Olson notes that “above the door on the left rear wall of the room is a circular area which looks as if it once included a tondo with the Madonna and Child”.[23] She writes that “rooms in the late Quattrocento were often decorated with spalliere, and bedrooms had beds with high headboards and usually a lettuccio with a high back”,[24] strengthening the view that tondi like Albertinelli’s may well have been placed above eye level.

The possible fertility function of Albertinelli’s painting shares a link with Sarto’s fresco, for, as Olson notes, the subject of the Birth of St. John the Baptist is associated with deschi. Used to describe the tray of food and drink, or birth salver, customarily portrayed with fourteenth and fifteenth-century paintings of childbirth,[25] a great number of these desco da parto or deschi survive; the earliest examples of which are multi-sided, frequently dodecagonal or sixteen-sided, later appearing in a completely round format.[26] Modern scholarship has not articulated a complete account for these objects, but Olson notes that the themes they depict suggest they were given as presents “not only upon pregnancy, but also on the occasion of marriage… in hopes of fecundity and progeny”.[27] Although space does not permit a complete discussion of Olson’s review of philological evidence from inventories which formally link deschi to tondi, and therefore to Albertinelli’s Holy Family, it is clear from the Savonarola woodcut and Sarto’s fresco that images in round frames were conspicuously placed above eye level in the camerae of Florentine homes, suggesting protection and even blessing. In a final example, a woodcut illustration from Gene Brucker’s book Giovanni and Lusanna clearly situates a painting of a Madonna and Child in the same high position we have already examined, but goes one step further: the scene depicts a groom ushering the last guests of the wedding party out of the bridal chamber, while the blushing bride, who is already in bed, waits drowsily for the nuptials to begin. In one succinct image, the placement of images in the bedroom of the home is linked with blessing of marriage and the promise of children.


There is little doubt that people of the Medieval and High Renaissance period were well versed in religious imagery, and Albertinelli’s tondo contains all the basic features of Christian doctrine, including the distinctly round appearance of the Christ child and his overly long swaddling clothes, references both to the Eucharist and to the shroud he will wear as a grown man. The Merchant of Prato text confirms that religious imagery of the period served not only to beautify and protect the home, but also worked on the people living inside. Indeed, the “artistic merit” of the images is considered “secondary to their prime object – to ‘move a man’s spirit to devotion’”.[28]

This basic function of encouragement to piety was also considered relevant for children living in the home. The writing of Cardinal Dominici (1356-1419) provides an early example of the belief that the placement of beautiful painted images of families and children inside the home served an important educational function. In hisRule for the Management of Family Care (1403), he writes:  “The first [rule] is to have paintings in the house, of holy little boys or young virgins, in which your child when still in swaddling clothes may delight, as being like himself”.[29] Dominici’s premise is simple: children will imitate what they find in paintings more readily if they can relate to the subject matter. These concepts were also gaining currency in urban centres outside of Italy. Figures such as Jean Charlier de Gerson (1363-1429) were championing the same ideas in France,[30]signaling a new emphasis that was to mature throughout the Renaissance.[31]


It is a common phrase that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What then of the perception of works of art once they are removed by many years of history from the context in which they were produced? A letter from Alessandra Strozzi, a member of an important Florentine banking family, provides some key insight into this dilemma. In a letter concerning two small painted canvases, she writes:

[O]ne is the Three Magi, offering gold to our Lord, and they are good figures. The other is a peacock, which seems very fine to me, and is enriched with other decorations. To me they seem beautiful: I will keep one, because, from what you in your letter say they cost, I don’t know if here one would get three florins apiece, for they are small canvases. If I had the chance to sell them at a profit, I would sell them both. The Holy Face I will keep, for it is a devout figure andbeautiful.[32]

Strozzi’s letter betrays a pronounced awareness of the commercial value of the pictures of which she writes, but her willingness to sell the image of Christ at a profit is tempered by her perception of it as both ‘devout’ and ‘beautiful’. Evidently, the balance between prestige, decoration, and her perception of the devotional image, tips – at least for the moment – in favour of keeping the image of Christ a little longer.

In order to approach a more precise understanding of the technical nature of the artistic merit praised by the Merchant of Prato, or the beauty that Strozzi enjoys so readily in her little painting of Christ’s face, it is necessary to examine some of key ideals of beauty that would have informed viewers of works like Albertinelli’s Holy Family. To this end, the great humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) provides vital information.

Alberti wrote extensively on the virtues of painting, expounding it as “a very great gift to mortals [because] it makes visible the gods who are worshipped by the people”.[33] He celebrated the ability for Paintings to aid “the piety by which we are joined to the divine, and in keeping our souls full of religion”.[34] He introduced the term compositione in 1435 to describe the “harmonization of every element in a picture towards one total desired effect”.[35] According to Alberti, one of the key tools the painter could employ to achieve the kind of harmony he found so pleasing was through geometry. He writes: “I like the painter to be as learned as he can be in all the liberal arts, but primarily I desire him to know geometry”.[36] In his condensed and illuminating study, Michael Baxandall effectively demonstrates that the Renaissance viewer was highly attuned to the nuances of geometry and, moreover, found the resolution of geometric and proportional problems on a single picture plane to be both pleasing and beautiful.[37]

The Holy Family presents a deceptively simple narrative picture. Part of its success rests in Albertinelli’s clever and succinct composition, where each detail is balanced and executed in consideration of the others: the receding landscape between Mary and Joseph, balanced by the more accessible land over Mary’s shoulder; the inverted triangular arrangement of the adult figures as they gaze at the Christ child, whose own arresting gaze regards the viewer directly; the balance of colour achieved through the pale tones of Joseph’s traveling cloak against Mary’s dark one. The artist has clearly absorbed the lessons of his training, to such a degree that the execution of the image seems effortless.

As we have seen, the scale and detail with which Albertinelli has painted Joseph in his HolyFamily would have been perceived as a distinct break with the traditional depiction of Adoration scenes. It has been suggested that the historical eclipse of Joseph from scenes depicting the Virgin and Child can be traced to a general theological uneasiness about Mary’s perpetual virginity. Specifically, in order to bear out the truth of Mary’s chastity, Joseph could not be seen as a virile man with any inappropriate desires, and was most easily depicted as a kind but somewhat foolish old man.[38] If we consider this idea along with the realization of this particular painted scene as a tondo, a form almost exclusive to the domestic setting, it is possible to contextualize the shift of focus from the Virgin and Child to Joseph and Mary as a family unit within larger socio-economic changes, including the rise of the cult of Joseph following the introduction of the Feast of St Joseph into the Roman Church in 1472 by Pope Sixtus IV.[39]


From the evidence reviewed, it is clear that Albertinelli’s tondo Holy Family with the Adoration of the Childwould have functioned as a decorative and devotional object in a domestic setting, suitable as an instructive painting for children. The artist’s association with prominent artistic figures of his day, as well as powerful Florentine families, would have increased the status of owing this particular painting. The perception of this painting as a beautiful object, with its depiction of the devout and loving Holy Family, would have been heightened by the religious message of salvation as much as Albertinelli’s keen and innovative use of geometric balance in his composition. The synthesis of stylistic, technical, and thematic mastery Albertinelli achieves also highlights some of the emerging values of Renaissance Florence, as is evident by the distinctly large scale Joseph has been rendered in this painting. The evidence examined also supports the view that paintings of this kind would have been placed high on the walls of the cameras of the family home in a position which was associated with protection at that time. This placement may have included fertility functions and been perceived as a way to increase a couple’s likelihood of producing children.

The Holy Family is truly a great addition to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ collection. In both its functions and perceptions, this compact tondo offers a dense bundle of meanings, illustrative of far more than the biblical scene denotes, and providing any modern viewer with the eyes and appetite, a wealth of material.


fig. 1. Mariotto Albertinelli
The Holy Family with the Adoration of the Child
About 1505
Oil and tempera on panel
89 cm (diam.)
Purchase, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michal Hornstein, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Volunteer Association, The Museum Campaign 1988-1993 and the Deirdre M. Stevenson Funds Coll. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Image copyright and courtesy the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
inv. 2007.79


Baxandall, Michael. Painting Experience in Fifteenth-century Italy. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford

University Press) 1972.

Bargo, Ludovico. The Work of Mariotto Albertinelli. (New York: Garland Publishing Inc.) 1976.

Goldthwaite, Richard A. Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600. (Baltimore: John

Hopkins University Press) 1993.

Holt, Elizabeth Gilmore. A Documentary History of Art. (Vol. 1) The Middle Ages and the

Renaissance. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press) 1981.

Meeks, Wayne A. et al., eds. The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books. (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers) 1989.

Olson, Roberta J.M. The Florentine Tondo. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2000.

Ragusa, Isa and Rosalie B. Green, Trans. Meditations on the Life of Christ: An Illustrated

Manuscript of the Fourteenth Century. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)


Scott, Leader. Illustrated Biographies of the Great Artists: Bartolommeo di Paolo and Mariotto

Albertinelli. (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington) 1881.



1 Scott, Leader, Illustrated Biographies of the Great Artists: Bartolommeo di Paolo and Mariotto Albertinelli (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1881) 33.

2 Ibid., 39. Scott, like Vasari, links Albertinelli’s famed break with art to an inability to work without Fra Bartolommeo’s aid, but adds the influence of his marriage to Dorma Antonia, whose father kept an inn at S. Gallo.

3 Borgo, Ludovico, The Works of Mariotto Albertinelli (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1976) 11.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.; See also Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent painters, sculptors and architects, trans. Mrs. Jonathan Foster, Vol. 4 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855-1872) 217, et seq.

6 Ibid., 16.

7 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent painters, sculptors and architects, trans. Mrs. Jonathan Foster. Vol. 4 (London: Henry G. Bohn. 1855-1872) 222.

8 Borgo, Ludovico, The Works of Mariotto Albertinelli (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1976) 19.

9 Goldfarb, Hilliard, “Rapport de Recherche”, dated 7 June 2007. Museum acquisition no. 2007.79.

10 Ibid.; Also suggested by Professor Virginia Nixon in written comments related to my study of this work.

11 Baxandall, Michael, Painting Experience in Fifteenth-century Italy.  2nd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) 81. Baxandall notes one possible reading of these colours: “humility” (Mary) and “dignity” (Joseph).

12 Matthew, 2.13-15; 2.19-23, taken from Meeks, Wayne A. et al., eds. The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989) 1861.

13 As noted by Professor Virginia Nixon in written comments related to my study of this work.

14 Chapter 8 of The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, taken from The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia. Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Age. Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, eds. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995). Reprint edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, originally published by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, in 1886. Calvin College: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, <>.

15 Ragusa, Isa and Rosalie B. Green, Trans.,  Meditations on the Life of Christ: An Illustrated Manuscript of the Fourteenth Century (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961) 68.

16 Olson, Roberta J.M., The Florentine Tondo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 83. Emphasis in original.

17 Datini, Francesco di Marco, The Merchant of Prato, trans. Iris Origo. Quoted from the class handout received on 30 October 2007, unknown page number.

18 Goldthwaite, Robert A., Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy. 1300-1600. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993) 226.

19 Goldfarb, Hilliard, “Rapport de Recherche”, dated 7 June 2007. Orsina was Piero di Cosimo’s wife.

20 Nixon, Virginia, Mary’s Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe (University Park, PA:  Pennsylvania University Press, 2004) note 21, page 188. The specific protection offered by St. Christopher to pilgrims was also discussed in class.

21 Olson, Roberta J.M., “Lost and Partially Found: The Tondo, a Significant Florentine Art Form in Documents of the Renaissance”, (1993) vol. 14, Artihus et Historiae, no. 27 at 49.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.  Emphasis in original.

[25]25 Emison, Patricia, Book Review of The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy by Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999) 76 Speculum 2 (Apr., 2001) 496.

26 Olson, Roberta J.M., The Florentine Tondo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 22.

27 Olson, Roberta J.M., The Florentine Tondo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 24.

[28]28 Datini, Francesco di Marco, The Merchant of Prato, trans. Iris Origo.  Quoted from the class handout received on 30 October 2007, page 258.

29 Cardinal Dominici, Rule for the Management of Family Care, part IV. Class handout, 11 September 2007, page 114.

30 Pascoe, Louis B., Jean Gerson: Principles of Church Reform (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973) 125-127. I am grateful to Professor Nixon who suggested that I pursue Gerson as a parallel example of this particular function.

31 Olson, Roberta J.M., The Florentine Tondo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 87. Olson notes that the concept of childhood as a distinct stage in life first appeared in the 15th Century.

32 Letter from Alessandra Strozzi quoted from handout received on 11 September 2007. Date unknown.

33 Alberti, Leon Battista, from A Documentary History of Art (Volume 1): The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Holt, Elizabeth Gilmore, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981) 211. Quoted from an extract received from Professor Nixon on 30 October 2007.

34 Ibid.

35 Baxandall, Michael, Painting Experience in Fifteenth-century Italy.  2nd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) 135.

36 Alberti, 216.

37 Baxandall, 137. See his discussion of the “satisfying” tension between variety and symmetry.

38 Olson, Roberta J.M., The Florentine Tondo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 90. This idea was also expressed in numerous lectures.

39 Ibid. Olson notes the “European custom of baking and eating small round breads on 19 March, St Joseph’s feast day, in order to honour the heavenly father”, a shape which recalls both the host and the tondo form.