Giovan BOLTRAFFIO | Madonna lactans [Our Lady nursing, Madonna del latte]

Milan 1447 /1487 – 1516

Madonna lactans [Our Lady nursing, Madonna del latte] c.1508
oil on wood panel
57.3 cm (diameter) Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

Such a gorgeous representation of the Madonna and Child may have been commissioned for a private patron, not for a prominent chapel in a cathedral, hence Boltraffio is able to represent the Madonna about to give milk to her Divine Son. Looking down in a bemused fashion she prepares for the Child to suck from her breast, displaying her erect nipple between two fingers of her right hand. She is dressed in a glamorous black cloak fastened with exquisite floral clasps, with a soft informal headdress and a slight veil over her forehead. The Child rests his bare bottom on an elaborately bound book, which may be a playful joke about learning.

Boltraffio is a rather unusual artist. He was born to a patrician Milanese family, had no necessity to paint, but was persuaded by passion to study with Leonardo da Vinci and became his first pupil.[1] Like Leonardo himself and his many followers, Boltraffio appropriated motifs from his own paintings and from the more famous works by his master. In this instance he is responding to Leonardo’s Virgin of the rocks[2] soon after its completion in 1508—perhaps working for one of Leonardo’s patrons, even the poet Gerolamo Casio whose portrait Boltraffio painted.[3] Details have been carefully chosen, not just for the haunting beauty of the softly formed shapes modelled in chiaroscuro, but because of their multiple meanings and ambiguities which Boltraffio exploits in a laconic fashion. For Boltraffio, appropriation is also erotic play.

The Madonna lactans is also in dialogue with Boltraffio’s last documented work, an altarpiece of the Madonna and Child between Saint John the Baptist, Saint Sebastian and the donor Bassiano da Ponte c. 1508, commissioned for the da Ponte Chapel in the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin at Lodi.[4] As in the Virgin of the rocks, there are vertiginous cliffs in the background and a seated Christ Child who resembles Leonardo’s Infant Christ.[5] Boltraffio adopts the Lodi prototype for the Bergamo panel, but eroticises and plays with more appropriations. The Child’s pose is taken from Leonardo’s Infant Christ, as in the Lodi altarpiece; however the foreshortening of the Madonna’s right hand is appropriated from the figure of the Archangel in the Virgin of the rocks version of c.1483–1486[6]—but here reversed. The Madonna lactans shows how Leonardo’s best pupil could take appropriation to inspired heights.

Jaynie Anderson

[1]Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). See Maria Teresa Fiorio, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio un pittore milanese nel lume di Leonardo, Rome: Landi Sapi Editori, 2000.

[2]National Gallery, London.

[3]Carlo del Bravo, ‘Sul significato d’un motivo in Leonardo e nei Leonardeschi’, artibus et historiae, vol. 21, no. 42, 2000, pp. 31–39.

[4]Now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

[5]See Jaynie Anderson, ‘Love and devotion in daily life in Renaissance Italy’, supra, p. 55, illus.

[6]Louvre, Paris.