(Bologna, 1512 – 1597)
Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Oil on canvas
21 1/8 x 16 5/8 inches
(53.7 x 42.2 cm)
Private Collection, Italy
Born in Bologna in 1512, Prospero Fontana's early training began in the workshop Innocenzo da Imola, a decidely Raphaelesque follower of Francia. Though his first signed painting was executed in 1545, Fontana’s earliest known artistic activity was in Genoa in the late 1520’s as an assistant to Perino del Vaga at the Palazzo Doria. Staying with Perino for about six years, Fontana left Genoa in 1534 and returned to Bologna. The 1540’s saw Fontana begin to receive important commissions from the religious and literary elites of Bolognese society. Between 1544 and 1548, Fontana executed, in Bologna, a Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist for the church of Santa Maria del Baraccano and the Beata Diana Andalo Professing with Saint Dominic for San Domenico. However, during those years Fontana also went to Rome to work again with Perino del Vaga, this time in the Castel San Angelo, and to Rimini to work with Vasari on multiple altarpieces.
In 1550, Giovanni Maria del Monte, a Cardinal from Bologna was elected Pope Julius III. An avid supporter of artists from his birthplace, Pope Julius brought the Bolognese painters Girolamo da Carpi, Jacopo Vignola, Pellegrino Tibaldi and Fontana to work for him in Rome. Fontana quickly became the favored artist of the Pope and thus garnered the most important commissions; including but not limited to, the decoration of the papal apartments, the Villa Giulia, and the family palace of the del Monte in Rome. His workshop in Bologna was also notable for its famous pupils. Ludovico and Agostino Carracci began their training there, Sammachini and Passerotti spent time there as collaborators, and his own daughter, Lavinia Fontana, would become a famous artist in her own right.
The present painting, depicting the Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria, was most likely commissioned for private devotion during Fontana’s time in Bologna in the late 1540’s to early 1550’s. The restrained and symmetrical composition of the work lends itself to quiet contemplation of the Holy Family and Saint Catherine. The Virgin and Joseph gaze down at the Christ Child, while Saint Catherine brings her hands together in prayer. Joseph, to the right of the Virgin, emerges from the shadows and holds a short rod, the symbol of his status as the husband of Mary. The female martyr, on the viewer’s left, is identified as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by her crown, an allusion her status as Queen before her conversion to Christianity. Though most often distinguished by her wheel, the instrument of her martyrdom, she is here shown with one of her alternative attributes. Fontana’s combination of fluid brushwork, bright tones and beautifully rendered emotion give this work a feeling of deep tenderness and familial intimacy. The attribution to Fontana has recently been confirmed by Prof. Mauro Lucco.