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Francesco Vanni is one of the last representatives of the long Sienese pictorial tradition. In this masterly composition in pen and ink wash, he presents the Virgin of the Rosary, holding the Child Jesus on her lap, surrounded on her right by Saint Dominic and on her left by Saint Catherine of Siena. The presence of these two emblematic saints of the Dominican order is a reminder of the devotion of this order to the Rosary.


  1. Francesco Vanni, a Sienese painter of the Counter-Reformation


Francesco Vanni was the most important Sienese painter of the late sixteenth century and a key Italian Counter-Reformation painter. He developed a very specific style, inspired not by Florentine models but rather by the Roman, Bolognese and Marche schools, and in particular by the work of his contemporary Federico Barocci (Urbino 1535 - 1612), despite the two artists never meeting.


Francesco Vanni was born in Siena around 1563-1564. His father died in 1567 and his mother remarried Arcangelo Salimbeni (1536 - 1579), then one of Siena's leading painters. His half-brother Ventura Salembini (1568 - 1613) also became a well-known painter. He continued his apprenticeship in Bologna and Rome, where he joined the painter Giovanni de Vecchi's (1536 - 1614) studio, where he was greatly influenced, like other Tuscan painters of the time, by the art of Federico Barocci.


He devoted himself mainly to religious painting, following the canons of the Counter-Reformation. Travelling between Siena, Rome, Bologna and Parma, in 1604, he settled in Siena, where he ended his life. Vanni was also an important member of the Confraternity of the Sacro Chiodo, renowned for its demanding religious practices.


His legacy also includes some important engraved work.


  1. Description of the artwork


The Virgin is depicted enthroned in majesty, slightly taller than the other figures that she dominates from her pedestal. Her wide robe with marked folds evokes Renaissance statuary. She is crowned by two angels in the sky. These two angels are a reminder of the custom of adding angels to crown 13th century icons which was frequent at Vanni's time.


The Child Jesus is standing on the Virgin's right knee. With her left hand she holds out a rosary to Catherine of Siena, identifiable by a branch of lily in her hand. In a symmetrical gesture, the Child Jesus also holds out a rosary to St Dominic. Two of St Dominic's attributes are to be found at the foot of the Virgin: a book and a branch of lilies. Vanni gives particularly delicate treatment to St. Dominic's long and slender hands.


The two outstretched rosaries form the link between the heavenly register of the Virgin and the Child Jesus and the earthly register of the two Dominicans who are not crowned with a halo. This and the fact they are followed by a large crowd, indicates that they are both represented as part of the multitude of the living called to pray to the Rosary.


According to the classical iconographic tradition, it would be plausible to consider that the figure looking at the viewer on the extreme left of the drawing could be a self-portrait of the painter. Francesco Vanni's face is known to us from a self-portrait kept in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.

The squaring of the drawing suggests that it was used for a larger-scale altarpiece, probably for a church dedicated to St Dominic or for a Dominican convent.


As of today, we have not identified the painting for which this drawing served as a preparatory modello. The Madonna of the Rosary in the Cathedral of Pitigliano (painted by Francesco Vanni in 1609) differs quite significantly from our drawing by the addition of Pope Pius V, and the inclusion of St. Dominic and St. Catherine in the celestial register.


We believe that our drawing predates this painting because of its more symmetrical composition, and less Baroque influence. The presence of Saint Catherine of Siena, particularly venerated in his native town, to which Francesco Vanni returned frequently from 1590 onwards, leads us to propose a date of around 1590 - 1600 for this drawing.


  1. The Rosary and the Dominican Order


In order to clarify the iconographic meaning of this artwork, it is worth recalling the role of Saint Dominic in the spread of the Rosary prayer.


Dominic Nuñez de Guzman was born around 1170 in Caleruega (near Burgos) in Spain and died in 1221 in Bologna, Italy. He was the founder of the order of friar preachers, commonly known as the Dominicans. He was canonised by the Church in 1234 and has since been celebrated under the name of Saint Dominic.


After three days of prayer in the forest of Bouconne, near Toulouse, Dominic is said to have received the Rosary as a means of converting the Cathar population. The Dominicans subsequently made a special effort to promote this form of meditative prayer. Pope Pius V, a Dominican, included the feast of the Rosary (on October 7th) in the liturgical calendar in 1571.


Rosary prayer has evolved over the centuries and traditionally consists of the recitation of three rosaries (four since St John Paul II). Each rosary consists of five tens of "Hail Mary", each preceded by an "Our Father" and followed by a Gloria.


Catherine Benincasa, more generally known as Catherine of Siena, was born on 25 March 1347 in Siena and died on 29 April 1380 in Rome. A Dominican tertiary, she was a great mystic who recounted her discussions with God in the Dialogue, a work dictated to her secretaries during her mystical trances. She was canonised in 1461 and declared a Doctor of the Church (in 1970). She is the great female figure of the Dominican order, which she helped to renovate by reaffirming the importance of the path traced by Saint Dominic.


By depicting St Dominic and St Catherine of Siena receiving the Rosary, Francesco Vanni celebrates the institution of this prayer, which was so dear to the Dominicans. In keeping with the missionary impulse of the Counter-Reformation, the message presented by this painting is simple and easily understood. The Rosary is the privileged link for access to divine intercession. As the crowd represented behind the two saints indicates, we are all called to pray to the Rosary.


We have framed this beautiful drawing in a painted silver baroque frame, probably from 18th century Sicily. Its dominant red-orange colour recalls the Sienese school's predilection for this chromatic range.


Main bibliographical references :

John Marciani and Suzanne Boorsch - Francesco Vanni - Art in the Late Renaissance Siena - Yale University Art Gallery 2003

Marco Ciampolini - Pittori senesi del Seicento - Siena 2012