This discussion addresses the subject of the overt pentimenti in the lower left of the painting, projecting from the Child's right elbow, as the best evidence of the originality of the work.
i) It was not until the painting received conservation and was photographed in monochrome at the National Conservation Centre, Liverpool in early 2000 that it became clear what the pentimenti represents. It is clearly a rendition of the Madonna's scarf, terminating in tight folds in the format of a scroll-like ball. The elliptic folds of material, the regular parallel lines of embroidery, and the twist in the scarf complementary to the twist over the Madonna's left shoulder, are all clearly visible. Presumably the concept of the artist was for the ball of material to be held by the Child's right hand, but for whatever reason the concept was abandoned in the finished painting. If the painting had been completed in accordance with the pentimenti, it would have created a noticeably triangular design to the picture.
ii) It is clear that the pentimenti was done at the underdrawing stage of the painting. This is evidenced by the high-definition and infrared photographs, which reveal that the faces of the cherubs – and particularly the cheek of one cherub – are painted over the underdrawing of the scarf. Also, there is no differentiation in the pattern of surrounding fine craquelure, which might be expected in anything extraneous.
iii) Lothian, PhD thesis (Liverpool University, 1991), p.150:
The pentimenti, to the viewer's left of the Child's elbow, would seem to be produced by a similar process to that used in some of Raphael's panel paintings.
Art-dealer William Buchanan copied the notes of Hacquin, who was responsible in 1798 for the transfer of some of Raphael's work from panel to canvas, including the Madonna di Foligno.
"Mr Hacquin mentioned, that in all the works of Raphael which he had transferred from the old panels to canvas, there appeared on the white ground of the picture a very fine but firm line in black crayon, or, what he termed pierre d'Italie; that this fine line, or first tracing of his subject, was afterwards strengthened with the pencil (a fine paint-brush) by a transparent brownish, or bistery colour, called by the French painters stil du grain…He then appeared to have passed a thin transparent glazing over this preparation, generally of a warm hue, somewhat like mummy, over which he painted his picture." "
[Reference: Buchanan, W: Memoirs of Painting: R.Ackerman: 1824: vol.I, p.338].
Larousse defines Pierre noire – or Pierre d'Italie – as (translation) :
"Pierre noire – equally known as 'Pierre d'Italie' – is a shale which leaves an indelible mark, of which the tone is from black to grey. Draughtsmen did not begin to use it regularly until towards the end of the fifteenth century, although it was known from ancient times. Michelangelo, Raphael and the Carracci produced some remarkable anatomical drawings with it".
iv) The immediately preceding altarpiece to the Sistine Madonna is the Madonna di Foligno. At the British Museum is Raphael's black chalk preparatory study for the latter altarpiece. It is interesting to observe the many attempts at finding an elegant solution to the position of the Child's left hand and arm – culminating in the artist's decision in the final painting to show the hand holding the Madonna's shawl, rather than as shown in the drawing. It strongly resembles the treatment of the pentimenti and the final depiction in the de Brécy Tondo but in reverse – and in relation to the Child's right hand and arm rather than His left as in the Madonna di Foligno.
v) It has been postulated that the pentimenti in the Tondo may be a later, extraneous addition, perhaps to balance the billowing shawl on the right-hand side of the picture. In addition to the above detailed observations, it is extremely difficult to envisage circumstances in which an expert copyist would wish or feel able to substantially experiment in this way with the copied image. Therefore the implication from the existence of the pentimenti remains powerfully that the de Brécy Tondo is an original work. In the circumstances, might it point to the author of the painting being a predecessor of Raphael?
Timothy J Benoy
The de Brécy Trust
16th August 2012