The first was the Uffizi picture, so widely known and loved. The mother has gathered up her mantle so that it covers her head and drops at one side on a step, forming a soft, blue cushion for the babe. Here the little darling lies, looking up into his mother's face. Kneeling on the step below, she bends over him, with her hands playfully outstretched, in a transport of maternal affection.
Madonna della Cesta
Following this came the picture now in the National Gallery, called the Madonna della Cesta, from the basket that lies on the ground. It is a domestic scene in the outer air: the mother is dressing her babe, and smilingly arrests his hand, which, on a sudden impulse, he has stretched towards some coveted object. The same face is almost exactly repeated in the Madonna of the Hermitage Gallery (St. Petersburg), who offers her breast to her boy, at that moment turning about to receive some fruit presented by a child angel. There are two duplicates of this picture in other galleries.
The Zingarella (the Gypsy) is so called from the gypsy turban worn by the Madonna. The mother, supposed to be painted from the artist's wife, sits with the child asleep on her lap. With motherly tenderness she bends so closely over him that her forehead touches his little head. It is unfortunate that this beautiful work is not better known. It is in the Naples Gallery.
A comparison of these pictures discloses a remarkable variety in action and grouping. On the other hand, the Madonnas are quite similar in general type. With the exception of the Zingarella, who is the most motherly, they are all in a playful mood. The same playfulness, but of a more sweet and motherly kind, lights the face of the Madonna della Scala. The composition is somewhat in the portrait style, showing the mother in half length, seated under a sort of canopy. The babe clings closely to her neck, turning about at the spectator with a glance half shy and half mischievous. His coyness awakens a smile of tender amusement in the gentle, young face above him.
The picture has an interesting history. It was originally painted in fresco over the eastern gate of Parma, where Vasari saw and admired it. In after years, the wall which it decorated was incorporated into a small new church, of which it formed the rear wall. To accommodate the high level of the Madonna, the building was somewhat elevated, and, being entered by a flight of steps, was known as S. Maria della Scala (of the staircase).
The name attached itself to the picture even after the church was destroyed (in 1812), and the fresco removed to the town gallery. The marks of defacement which it bears are due to the votive offerings which were formerly fastened upon it,—among them, a silver crown worn by the Madonna as late as the eighteenth century. Though such scars injure its artistic beauty, they add not a little to the romantic interest which invests it.