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Bonifazio de' Pitati (Verona 1487-Venice 1553)

The Two Holy Families with Saint Roch (or James), Tobias and Raphael, and a Shepherd c. 1520-30

Oil on canvas | 162.7 x 235.0 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405732

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Bonifazio de' Pitati worked in Venice, and his early paintings of this type reflect the influence of Giorgione, Titian, and especially, Palma Vecchio (c.1480–1528), in whose studio he probably worked. Indeed, in the Whitehall inventory of 1666 this painting was attributed to 'Old Palma', an identification that continued until the nineteenth century. Bonifazio ran a busy and successful studio during the 1530s, and his pupils included Tintoretto, Jacopo Bassano (c.1510–92) and Andrea Schiavone (d. 1564). Surface damage and clumsy repainting here make it difficult to assess the painting's quality, but it would seem to include impressive passages (the central group of the Virgin and Child, Raphael and Tobias) and weaker parts, suggesting some workshop involvement.

This paintng is a sacra conversazione - a tpye of painting for which Bonifazo was particularly known. The composition is strikingly asymmetrial.  At the centre of the group on the left is the Virgin, reading from a book, with the Christ Child in her lap. Alongside, the Archangel Raphael presents the young boy Tobias, who offers the miraculous fish that will ultimately cure his father's blindness. On the right is St Joseph, who turns towards a shepherd carrying a lamb in his arms; and in the corner, the head of Tobias's dog, Hera, who accompanied the two travellers on their journey. In the left foreground is St Elizabeth, with John the Baptist on her knee and her husband Zacharias next to her. The red pilgrim's hat badge worn by the man on the left suggests that he may be St James, patron saint of pilgrims. The badge takes the form of a large cross with a smaller cross in each quarter, the emblem used by the Canonici regolari del Santo Sepolcro di Gerusalemme.  The naturalistic setting, with a rocky cavern and rickety bridge over a ravine on the right, ruined architecture on the left and an expansive view into the distance, marks a shift from the earlier forms of sacra conversazione, which showed figures within a clearly defined and sacred architectural setting.

Tobias with his fish was an early type of baptism; Raphael leading Tobias always expressed protection, especially protection of the young, and the shepherd and the lamb may represent a similar theme.

Surface damage and clumsy repainting make it difficult to assess the painting's quality, but it would seem to include impressive passages (the central group of the Virgin and Child, Raphael and Tobias) and weaker parts, suggesting some workshop involvement.

Text adapted from Charles II: Art and Power, London 2017.