The Picture of Perfection

Unraveling The Alba Madonna

Raphael's universally admired painting was given to the National Gallery by Andrew Mellon.
Raphael's universally admired painting was given to the National Gallery by Andrew Mellon. (National Gallery Of Art)
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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

Not many objects can hope to rival the Alba Madonna. By common consent it is one of the greatest paintings ever made. It's almost a calling card for all that art achieved in the High Renaissance in Italy. Everything -- everything-- that Western artists have produced since then looks back to that moment, and its perfections. You can buy into them or fight them, but you can't ignore them.

The Alba Madonna was painted almost exactly five centuries ago (some time between 1508 and 1511) by Raffaello Sanzio, just "Raphael" to us. He was born in Urbino in 1483, perfected his craft in Florence, then moved to Rome to work for the pope. He died there in 1520.

Raphael's tondo -- the term for round pictures such as this -- spent its first 150 years tucked away in a provincial church just south of Naples. By the end of the 17th century, it had been widely copied and was described as "wildly famous."

The painting eventually passed to the Dukes of Alba in Spain, who were so well known that the painting took their name. The picture spent time in Raphael-mad England, then was bought by Czar Nicholas I. Finally, Joseph Stalin sold it to Andrew Mellon for $1,116,000 -- headlines trumpeted it as the first "million-dollar" work of art. Mellon gave it to this nation in 1937, along with a National Gallery to keep it in. It now hangs in Room 20 of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.

There's just one problem with the painting: It can feel so effortlessly perfect as to seem almost sealed off. Its perfection acts as a bulletproof shield, fending off even the most expert minds. It's one of the world's most famous paintings -- and yet barely a single study has been devoted solely to it.

To try to pierce the picture's defenses, I coaxed three of the country's most exciting scholars into taking on the Alba Madonna.

All interviews conducted, edited and condensed by Blake Gopnik. For more from these scholars on the Alba Madonna, visit

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