I am currently researching the choices made by Suor Battista, abbess of the Monteluce Convent, when, in 1505, she selected the artist Raphael to make an altarpiece for the high altar of her convent church in Perugia. Of course most of us, presented with the possibility of Raphael when casting about for an artist to take on a commission would not hesitate. Raphael’s tiny Conestabile Madonna, which he had just completed in 1505, probably for Suor Battista’s nephew, (it’s now in the Hermitage in St Petersburg), is one of those paintings that never fails to give you that shiver down the spine. (It’s my luxury item for Desert Island Discs, just in case anyone ever asks). It you can’t get to St Petersburg then The Madonna of the Pinks in the National Gallery comes close. To my mind Raphael is just about as good as it gets. But in 1505 Raphael wasn’t yet ‘Raphael – famous artist of the Renaissance’…….he was just another jobbing artist in Perugia, along with Perugino, Pintoricchio – who were much better known – and at least twenty more. His greatest works were still to come. Suor Battista may have seen the Conestabile Madonna and got that shiver down the spine, but a tiny Madonna and Child was a long way from the sort of large altarpiece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin which she wanted for the church.
So what was Suor Battista looking for? I am piecing together the possibilities open to her and the factors which might have influenced her decision. She was a fascinating woman seems to have made a number of interesting artistic commissions for the Abbey and has left us a record of these through her entries in the Abbey Memoriale.As ever when carrying out historical research, it is that moment when the characters suddenly come to life across the space of the centuries that makes it so addictive. I can’t help feeling that there must have been some animated conversation about this commission in The Monteluce Convent of the Poor Clares.