Vasari’s ‘Holy Family’ Masterpiece at Museum

Times Art Writer

A Christmas card painting has arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art well ahead of the holiday season.

“Holy Family With St. Francis in a Landscape” by 16th-Century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari is a gift of the Ahmanson Foundation. Depicting an adoring mother and child in glowing light, with Joseph and St. Francis looking on from a darkened background, the deftly modeled painting presents an archetypal image of familial love--the sort of picture that is often reproduced on greeting cards.

“Holy Family” was actually acquired last summer at an undisclosed price from a private European collection, but it has been undergoing cleaning and restoration in the museum’s conservation laboratory. Now ready to be framed and hung in the museum’s Italian galleries, the painting will go on view Tuesday.


Vasari (1511-1574) is best known for his “Lives,” a collection of subjective biographies of artists, but the Italian writer was also a very productive Mannerist painter. His easel paintings, such as “Holy Family,” are rare, however, because he typically executed grand commissions of huge decorative cycles on walls of churches, palaces and public buildings. Traveling throughout Italy, he painted the “Life of Pope Paul II” at the Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome and masterminded the architectural refurbishment and decoration of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

“Holy Family” was commissioned in 1542 for a private chapel by Francesco Leoni, a Florentine banker living in Venice. While the mother and child are based on idealized stereotypes, indebted to Raphael, the two men in the painting were probably painted from life. Because St. Francis was the patron saint of Francesco Leoni, scholars surmise that the dark-robed figure may be a likeness of Vasari’s patron.

“It’s a very good Vasari,” said senior paintings conservator Joe Fronek, who has given the 6-by-4-foot painting its first cleaning in more than 150 years. “Many Renaissance scholars have called it one of the best they have seen.”

According to the conservator, “Holy Family” had more than beauty to recommend its purchase. “It is in exceptionally good condition,” he said. Museum conservators have performed extensive treatment on the 445-year-old canvas, however. After studying the painting through an X-ray radiograph and ultraviolet light, they removed discolored varnish, then stripped away an old fabric lining from the back--a process that made the front surface smoother and a seam in the canvas less prominent.

According to Fronek, cleaning and subsequent in-painting (the process of touching up damaged pigment) is always done with a close eye on pictorial balance and unity. Dark-brown areas around the figures were originally bright green, he said, but because that color can not be recaptured, the foreground figures must not be cleaned to their original lightness or they would stand out too abruptly.