The large altar piece by Annibale Carracci, dated around 1590-92, for the painter was undoubtedly a very challenging public commission that would have proved his artistic maturity. At the time, little more than thirty years old, he was already the protagonist of that famous “reform” that was to irrevocably change the course of European art.

The original location on the high altar of the Franciscan church of Santi Ludovico e Alessio, already on Via del Pratello and now suppressed, explains the presence of the church’s two namesakes – St. Louis and St. Alexius - represented in the foreground, within a group of Saints, which includes also Catherine, Clare and Francis.

Alexius is depicted on the right, as a pilgrim, while Louis of Anjou is on the left in bishop’s vestments, but with the mitre laid down in front of him as a sign of humility. In the detail of the precious headpiece, almost a separate and strongly realistic painting, Annibale Carracci provides significant evidence of his painterly virtuosity.

In the composition of the altarpiece, the artist does not deviate from the sixteenth-century scheme, dividing the painting into two distinctly separate planes with the group of Saints below and the apparition of the Virgin, introduced by the gesture of St. John the Baptist, above, in a quest for balance and harmony that references Raphael’s great model.

However, he enriches the traditional layout by bathing the figures of Saints in the silvery light of a landscape influenced by the painting of the great Venetian masters, from Titian to Veronese, all of whom he studied extensively during his stay in Venice.

The painting was commissioned by the Secretary of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament for a small room attached to the church of San Giorgio in Poggiale, used for doctrinal education of young people, mentioned in documents as the “meeting room”. This specific destination explains the characters in this work, in which the story from the Gospels is interwoven with a precise educational intention.

Ludovico Carracci, one of the protagonists of that reform in painting that in the late 1500s put an end to the sophisticated Mannerist style, proved to be so attuned to the signs that Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti had included in his “Speech on sacred and profane images” of 1582: in keeping with the dictates of the Counter Reformation following the Council of Trent, artists were urged to produce works that could be understood by everyone.

For this altarpiece, executed in 1584, Ludovico used a rigorously central perspective, with the lines of the grid flooring in terra-cotta and grey stone that converge to a single vanishing point, reconstructing what could be the room of any teenager in the popular housing of the late sixteenth century.

The modest furnishings were those most widely used in homes in Bologna during that era, such as the plain two-door cabinet that we glimpse in the twilight background, and the bed on the right.

Mary, wearing a high-necked austere dress, adorned only by a belt, is absorbed in reading a little book of prayers, until she is interrupted by the angel who delivers a lily.

Behind them, a gust of wind opens the window, through which the dove of the Holy Spirit enters.

Here the sacred is no longer the extraordinary event represented in Mannerist painting, but becomes a tangible and familiar experience, so close that in the background, beyond the open window, the faint but reassuring city of Bologna with its two towers is visible.


Also significant is the way that the gospel story is represented, with the Virgin and the Angel depicted as two humble children who seem to belong to the same social class as those children who meet in the Confraternity room.

The altarpiece with the Madonna, Child and Saints Francis, Dominic, and Magdalen is the first signed and dated by Ludovico Carracci, who made it for the Bargellini family of Bologna.

The family was tied to the late Pope, Gregory XIII, also Bolognese, through the relationship with the client, Cecilia Bargellini Boncompagni, here shown kneeling at the centre with her hands clasped, as a Carmelite nun.

The work originally stood on the altar of the Boncompagni Chapel in the church of Santi Filippo e Giacomo, on Via delle Lame, also known as “delle convertite”, named after the adjacent convent of the Carmelite Nuns.

Mary, seated on a high throne, adorned by the heraldic dragon of the pope's family, is portrayed as a humble queen, barefoot with a florid face, as she is being crowned by angels in flight; the view from beneath and looking upward makes it tangible and realistic.

The Madonna has her cheek against the Child's and watches us with a direct gaze. Jesus, restless in his mother's lap blesses, while, like a party, the angels sing to the sweet sound of the lute or scatter incense and flowers.

The faithful are called to participate in the event, thanks to the continuity between the painted space and the real world, obtained through the saints’ eloquent gestures.

St. Francis is deeply concentrated on contemplating the Virgin and Child. Saint Dominic, however, turns to the faithful and points out the mother and son to them with an emphatic gesture.

Mary Magdalen, the redeemed prostitute figure par excellence, isolated on the right, seems to be indicating to the Holy family the penitents in prayer beyond the borders of the painting. Her presence is a clear reference to the convent’s function as a charitable refuge for repentant prostitutes.

Justified in the same light is the presence of the holy water and holy water sprinkler at the feet of the Virgin, clear symbols of purification.

Despite the strong human characterization of the saints, like the heavily-lined face of St. Francis or the resolute gaze of St. Dominic, the only true portrait is that of the elderly Cecilia Bargellini Boncompagni, who commissioned the painting, and on whose profile the painter does not fail to record a small wart above her mouth. The sacred characters are offered to the observer in the most confidential and engaging manner, under a portico that alludes to those in the city, beyond which rise the familiar towers of Bologna.