The Nursing Madonna ('Madonna of milk')
Giuliano Bugiardini (Florence 1476 – 1555)
The curved profile of the panel follows the profile of the painted niche which houses the Virgin and the Child. The light, luminous complexions of the two figures stand out in contrast to the chromatic intensity of the red robe and the blue mantle that slips over Mary's legs to form wide hollows and folds, rising up to subtly frame her face, so as to achieve the effect of a polychrome sculpture. Mary has just unfastened the opening of her dress to offer her breasts to the Child who clings to them hungrily, but turning to the spectator, as if to share that intimate and very sweet moment. In the mother's melancholic, slightly downcast gaze is the omen for the fate of the son she is nurturing as an infant, but whom she will hold in her arms once more as an adult, after enduring the endless pain of seeing him tortured and crucified. The iconography of the Madonna of the Milk has a long tradition in the history of art, since evidence of it can already be found in Byzantine painting from the first Christian centuries, but its fortune in Italy and Northern Europe formed continuously from the 14th century onwards and ended in the mid-16th century as a consequence of the decrees of the Council of Trent that censured nudity.
There are many illustrious models from the early sixteenth century that Bugiardini drew on for this tender maternity scene. The echoes of his early training in the forge of the Ghirlandaio brothers and Piero di Cosimo can still be glimpsed in the characteristic physiognomies - the small eyes set in regular faces with a rectangular forehead and a rounded chin - and in the luminous clarity of the painting, but those early teachings were overlaid by the simple and solemn spirituality of Fra Bartolomeo. In the calibrated use of shaded shadows to gradually define the volumes and articulation of the drapery, Bugiardini put his observation of Leonardo's Madonnas to good use. Just like the work of the master of Vinci, the panel, originally in San Michele a Castello in Florence, was purchased in 1780 and immediately exhibited at the Uffizi. In its place, a copy entrusted to Sante Pacini, an artist no stranger to the task of copying illustrious originals passed from time to time in Florentine collections, was placed in the original church.
The attribution to Bugiardini, suggested for the first time in the mid-nineteenth century by the scholar Giovanni Rosini, has been unanimously accepted by subsequent studies.
L.Pagnotta, Giuliano Bugiardini, Torino, 1987, pp. 204-205