Baldacchino’s Back – A Raphael Masterpiece Returns to Pescia

Raphael’s Madonna Baldacchino, temporarily back home in and on public view in Pescia

After 320 years, Raphael’s Madonna Baldacchino – an altarpiece of extraordinary beauty and symmetry – is being re-displayed at the Turini chapel in Pescia’s cathedral, where it resided for over 150 years during the 16th and 17th centuries. The viewing window – extended until October 1 – has come about thanks to the ‘Uffizi Diffusi’ initiative, a programme that brings museums and galleries in Florence into closer dialogue with the local area and the original contexts of the works exhibited.

Painted between 1506 and 1508 (but left incomplete), the Madonna Baldacchino depicts the Virgin on a throne beneath a canopy of angels. On her lap sits the Christ child, clumsily pawing at her shoulder and playing with his toes, and either side of them stand the Saints, Peter, Bernard of Clairvaux, James the Greater and Augustine. At her feet, two cherubic angels fumble with a scroll, trying to decipher the script. Whilst the composition certainly displays poise and symmetry, there is dynamism there too: each figure engages in their own, unique dialogue with other characters in the painting, or even, with us, the viewers.

Commissioned by the Dei family and intended for display at Santo Spirito church, the piece never quite made it to its planned location and later came into the hands of Baldassare Turini (1481 – 1543), an Italian Catholic bishop and leading figure in the Pescia community. Installed at the altar of the Turini chapel in the town’s cathedral, the painting remained there until 1697, when it was bought by the Grand Prince Ferdinando de Medici and brought back to Florence. Restored and finally completed, the piece was placed in the Palazzo Pitti. Pier Dandini made a copy of the image in 1699, to fill the gaping space left in the Turini chapel after the Medici’s purchase.

Centuries later, the painting is finally returning to where it was first displayed (following a thumbs-up from specialists who approved the move).  Through early fall 2023, those visiting the Pescia cathedral will get the chance to enjoy the Madonna Baldacchino in its original setting, as well as contemplate the story of Baldassare Turini, after whom the chapel was named and who was ultimately responsible for coordinating the painting’s arrival in Pescia hundreds of years ago. Beyond this, the programme itself arguably gets viewers thinking about the correspondence between art and context, both spatial and historical, and how far we can really get away from the ‘museum gaze.’ (Sophie Holloway)