Giovan Francesco Caroto, a Holy Family between Leonardo and Michelangelo

Painted with references to Leonardo and Michelangelo, Giovan Francesco Caroto's Holy Family preserved at the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona is one of the key paintings in the Veronese artist's career, often likened to the manner of Giulio Romano.

It could be said that there was not just one Giovan Francesco Caroto: there were as many as the genres with which he tried his hand, the artists he approached, the experiences he gained during his many travels. Artist, in many ways, not so nimble to frame. Far from it. And although he was never an artist unknown to critics, and a rather conspicuous literature on him has flourished (we are talking, after all, about a painter who was accustomed to sign his works, and about whom there are several documentary sources), his recognition has always been confined to local circles. Not least because critics have always looked at him with a crooked eye: he was, after all, a discontinuous artist, with an extravagant and witty character (“bizarre brain” Vasari called him), capable of refined portraits and meticulous landscapes but also of unwatchable pastiches, and that his drawing on the most varied sources (Berenson used another term, however: he said that Caroto “caught”) was read as an incurable flaw, as the figure of an artist skilled at riding trends but superficial, lacking personality.

For these reasons, too, until 2022 a monographic exhibition had never been dedicated to him. And walking from top to bottom through the rooms of the Gran Guardia in Verona, site of the exhibition Caroto e le arti tra Mantegna e Veronese (Caroto and the Arts between Mantegna and Veronese ), which for the first time brought together in a single place the main works of Giovan Francesco Caroto, the first impression is precisely that of an artist easily inclined to change ideas and points of reference throughout his career, with sometimes decidedly questionable results: it likes to think, for example, that the canons of San Giorgio in Braida in Verona replaced his San Giorgio with a painting by Veronese after only about twenty years not for reasons related to changing fashions, but precisely because Caroto’s San Giorgio , however interesting, is an ugly painting. In any case, monographic studies and exhibitions are also useful for this: to question hasty judgments, to see if from unpublished comparisons between works it is possible to obtain more accurate feedback on an artist’s personality, to understand how many hints of originality can be encountered in his path. And indeed, from the publication of the first monograph on Caroto, that of Maria Teresa Franco Fiorio in 1971, to the Gran Guardia exhibition, fifty years of research have produced more than appreciable results. However, open problems remain: one of them is related to the beautiful Holy Family with St. John and St. Elizabeth, which is kept at the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona, a work signed and dated 1531 and therefore a key work for reconstructing the artist’s career.

Giovan Francesco Caroto, Sacra Famiglia con san Giovannino e santa Elisabetta (1531; olio su tela, 122,3 x 91 cm; Verona, Museo di Castelvecchio, inv. 1371-1B114)
Giovan Francesco Caroto, Holy Family with St. John and St. Elizabeth (1531; oil on canvas, 122.3 x 91 cm; Verona, Museo di Castelvecchio, inv. 1371-1B114)

The Holy Family is indeed among the best known and most cited paintings of Caroto’s production. The work opens up the question of the relationship between Caroto and Giulio Romano: the issue is far from idle, since it fits into the framework of the relations that the Veronese painter had with Mantua, and it could be central to understanding, for example, why in 1534 Caroto refused a decidedly important commission, the execution of the frescoes in Verona Cathedral on cartoons by Giulio Romano, a commission later entrusted to Francesco Torbido. This canvas by Caroto could, therefore, provide interesting insights.

The artist chooses a pyramid composition, with the vertexes placed on the head of the Virgin and on the feet of the Infant Jesus and the little Saint John, who kiss under the eyes of Mary, depicted by Caroto with sweet adolescent features, with an amorous gaze, her brown hair gathered in a transparent veil, painted with a few too many rigidities. More remarkable, however, is the rendering of the light, which comes in strong from the left and with its diffuse glow invests the delicate, graceful face of the Virgin and the Herculean bodies of Jesus and St. John, caught in a brotherly embrace. The kiss between the children is not an invention of the Veronese: it originated in Leonardo’s circle, and Caroto’s relations with the Milanese milieu are well known. In the painting preserved at Castelvecchio, where it arrived in 1871 from the collection of Cesare Bernasconi, the artist rather faithfully reproduces Bernardino Luini’s Holy Family preserved today at the Prado, and which arrived in Spain as a gift from Cosimo I de’ Medici to Philip II (curious to note that in the inventories of the Escorial of 1574 it was assigned to Leonardo da Vinci). Compared to Luini, who shifts the main figures to the side to give prominence to St. Joseph as well, Caroto’s composition is strongly central and reserves little more than an ancillary role for the figures of St. Joseph, whom we see on the left, asleep, with his right hand supporting his head and his elbow resting on an antique relief depicting a head in a Phrygian cap, and St. Elizabeth on the right, covered almost entirely by the Virgin’s shoulder. Even farther back is an angel in the half-light, behind Joseph, and in the right corner we can make out the leaves of a tree. The painter’s signature, “Fr. Caroto / [M]DXXXI,” appears on the parapet we see near Mary’s arm, covered by the heavy red velvet sleeve, finely investigated in the folds of the drapery, and remaining in full shadow behind the back of St. John. Curious is the gesture of the right hand, with the index finger trying to hold the sign in the book and at the same time trying to accompany the movement of Jesus embracing his cousin.

Having clarified the link with Leonardo’s milieu, it is necessary to investigate that with Raphael’s sphere: critics, as is easy to predict, have long wondered about the possibility that this Holy Family may have arisen from contact with the inventions of Giulio Romano, who had been present in Mantua since 1524. “The canvas,” wrote Maria Teresa Fiorio in her 1971 monograph, “shows the accentuation of Giovan Francesco’s gravitation to Giulio Romano’s sphere of investigation, an element agreed upon by critics.” Of the same opinion was Gianni Peretti, curator, together with Francesca Rossi and Edoardo Rossetti, of the 2022 exhibition: in his opinion, the shadow of Giulio Romano “hovers over this work.” Skeptical was Carlo Del Bravo, who preferred to glimpse in this work the lesson of Callisto Piazza. And in the monograph on Caroto published in 2020 as the exhibition’s hors-d’oeuvre, Stefano L’Occaso also expressed a contrary position (“I would tend to downplay this presumed relationship with Giulio Romano”), recognizing instead, on the basis of a cue from Francesca Rossi, a rapprochement with the Michelangelo of the Sistine Chapel, to which the massive and muscular proportions of the two children inevitably refer. And indeed, it does not seem improper to assert that that “process of rethinking Raphaelesque motifs” that the Holy Family might recall can also disregard the reference to Giulio Romano, with whom Caroto shares neither the palette nor the original iridescences and often not even the compositional schemes, but just the common reference to Michelangelo’s twists and turns and the monumental rendering of the figures.

Those who lean in favor of a solid relationship between Caroto and Giulio Romano believe that the Veronese artist refused to execute the Duomo frescoes on his cartoons because he had by then assimilated the model well and did not need to work on ready-made inventions. Conversely, the contrary position points precisely to Caroto’s distance from Giulio Romano as the reason for the refusal. One thing unites them all: the difficulty in approaching the art of Caroto, one of the most difficult and insidious painters for a 16th-century art scholar. And for that very reason perhaps also one of the most fascinating.

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