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The dirty feet pilgrims: Madonna di Loreto, Caravaggio

After the youth stage characterized by experimentation, Caravaggio has come to success and is one of the most knew painters in Rome, to which are entrusted several public commissions, especially for the churches. In these paintings the subjects are everytime developed in a different way, and the circumstances and spiritual meanings are never forget.

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  • Where: the church of Sant’Agostino in Campo Marzio, in the Cavalletti chapel (first chapel on the left), piazza Sant’Agostino 80, next to piazza Navona
  • When: the chapel in open during the church opening time
  • Why: it’s a surprising artwork, unfortunately often ignored. The church itself is very beautiful and rich in history, and keeps wonderful Renaissance artworks.


Caravaggio is not that personality almost outside of history, opposed to the society as the traditional nineteenth and twentieth-century criticism about the  artist modern, revolutionary and rebellious wanted to pass down. But an artist who pursues a precise moral culture, which makes it as present in his painting.

Each phase of his work is faced starting with naturalistic assumptions, breaking with tradition and with the processes on which religious art was based for centuries: formal choices that led to a defined procedure. And this became one of the reasons for him and his painting rejection.


Caravaggio himself was involved in the assessment of the aims and ways of representing religious scenes: no more biblia pauperum, but need to communicate a religious, allegorical and spiritual message, .

The criticism made by the Catholic Reformation environments to Mannerist stratagems was one of the reason of the choice of Caravaggio against the formal procedures that traditionally presided over the artistic elaboration. But despite this, it is from lower-middle level of the Church that received the most opposition: the refuse to place his paintings on the altars for which they were created.

All refuses were always connected with the presentation of the Saints in the humble and folk guise, which attitudes weren’t aligned with the idealization required by the Christian religion, and without the architectural supports needed to ennoble the scene. The vision of Caravaggio, who started right from pauperism vision of the reform desired by the Council of Trent, at that point, seemed unacceptable.

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Our Lady of Loreto was greeted by the people with “extreme clamor” (estremo schiamazzo) as reported by Baglione, to be intended in the sense not at all positive.

Nella prima cappella della chiesa di Sant’Agostino alla man manca fece una Madonna di Loreto ritratta dal naturale con due pellegrini, uno co’ piedi fangosi, e l’altro con una cuffia sdrucita, e sudicia; e per queste leggierezze in riguardo delle parti, che una gran pittura aver dee, da’ popolani ne fu fatto estremo schiamazzo

Giovanni Baglione, Le vite de pittori, scultori, architetti ed intagliatori. Dal pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572 in fino ‘a tempi di papa Urbano VIII nel 1642, Roma, Stamperia di Andrea Fei, 1642, p. 130

It is one of the most popular works of Caravaggio, whose subject does not follow the traditional iconography, but recreates a real situation.

The Virgin’s hand, pressed on the flesh of her Son, reminds his human nature; in that moment, she’s overlooking the door of her house, which frames her as a niche. The two pilgrims, kneeling, their backs to the viewer, with bare feet: they are the pauperistic element, typical of the Lombard tradition of artistic education of our painter.


The diagonal composition, seen at close quarters and fom below, are common with the works of the years immediately preceding; but here the deep darkness hugs the figures, and don’t highlight them in a sculptural point of view as in the Vatican Deposition.

The red velvet corsage of the Madonna is a beautiful lure of the fabrics painted by Titian.


This time Caravaggio test himself with a sacred scene which is usually represented with imagination, as a vision of a wooden house transported to heaven by angels until the town of Loreto, surmounted by the group of the Virgin and Child. Here, however, is leaning against the jamb of a Roman house (on this jamb so much has been said and written, I find it unnecessary to return above, as nothing more than a curiosity; it’sd enough to say that it is the same jamb of Caravaggio’s home). The setting in the background is minimized because the attention is focused on the child, the only character full enlighted, holded up by the Madonna. He is blessing the pilgrims, with a natural gesture. However, its representation is closer to a ex-voto, as in the traditional sixteenth-century rhetoric.


A man and a woman of the masses, pilgrims proved by the trip and finally at the destination of their journey. They meet the Virgin when she’s coming out of her house. The question of whether it is simply a beautiful commoner is dispelled by the thin halo, the imperceptible golden wire around her head, more Cephisodotus Irene (Roberto Longhi) than a Madonna. She cross her bare foot, almost mentioning a dance step.

The idea to venerate the image of a Madonna who looks more like a commoner on the mere threshold of a Roman house, in direct contact with two pilgrims of the common people who, from the back and showing theirbare and dirty feet, with clothes patched, this was absolutely new, and arouse an uproar from the people who had recognized there, as Baglione reports that “by  the commoners were an extreme clamor” (da’ popolani ne fu fatto estremo schiamazzo). But more than the recognition in the dirty feet of the pilgrims, to arouse popular acclaim was the reduction of the sacred subject to votive offerings from a sanctuary, or rather, the ex-voto raised to art work.


The work was commissioned at the beginning of ‘600 by the notary Cavalletti, coming from the city of Bologna, to be placed in the family chapel in the church of Sant’Agostino, in the Campus Martius in Rome, which was purchased in 1603. The painting should be in place before March 1606 (and then made between 1603 and 1606).

Our Lady of Loreto was, in 1600, one of the most common representations in Roman houses. No wonder then that Caravaggio tackled this issue in terms anything but courtly, as Annibale Carracci to represented only a few years earlier.

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Annibale Carracci, Madonna di Loreto, church of Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo, Rome

Short bibliography:

GREGORI Mina, Caravaggio, Milano: Electa, 1994

DANESI SQUARZINA Silvia (a cura di), Caravaggio e i Giustiniani. Toccar con mano una collezione del Seicento, catalogo della mostra Roma, Palazzo Giustiniani 26 gennaio-15 maggio 2001, Berlino, Altes Museum 15 giugno-9 settembre 2001, Milano: Electa, 2001

COLIVA Anna, Caravaggio, la Madonna dei Palafrenieri, Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2003

LONGHI Roberto, Caravaggio, ed. a cura di Giovanni Previtali, Roma: Editori Riuniti, 2009


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