The Courtesan and the Virgin: Caravaggio’s Pilgrims’ Madonna

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“Pilgrims’ Madonna”, also known as “Madonna of Loretto”, is a large canvas painted by Caravaggio between 1604 and 1606 and hosted in the Cavalletti Chapel (the first on the left hand side) of the Basilica of Sant ‘Agostino, in the square of the same name. Since its first appearance, the painting aroused a certain scandal: first of all, the pilgrims were two poor people – one with mud-caked feet, the other with a dirty and torn bonnet – two commoners who clearly shared with the Romans citizens hunger, destitution and poverty, and certainly not the elegantly discharged pilgrims portrayed in contemporary paintings. And then, there was the Virgin: beautiful, but of an earthly, carnal beauty, in open contrast with the directives of the Council of Trent, which had expressly banned “all the lasciviousness of a brazen beauty from the sacred figures”. Nor was this the worst. To portray the Madonna, Caravaggio – who had never turned back when faced with a provocation – had chosen as his model Maddalena Antognetti, known as Lena: a courtesan, a refined prostitute, who used to dispense her favors to high prelates and rich aristocrats. Maddalena was a leading figure in the Rome of the time, so much so that ,as soon as the canvas was displayed, everyone recognized her for who she was. The scandal was immediate. The Basilica of Sant ‘Agostino, however, seemed to have a penchant for scandals. It was the only Roman church, in fact, to be frequented by the courtesans, who here even had their desks reserved in the first two rows, so that their presence would not have excessively distracted other devotees assisting at the Mass. Here, on Sundays, used to seat Tullia D’Aragona, the beautiful Fiammetta lover of Cesare Borgia son of Pope Alexander VI, Giulia Campana and Beatrice Pareggi, who was even buried inside the Basilica.

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