The Cult of the Madonna of Impruneta at the time of the Lorraines
With the end of the Medici dynasty and the accession of the Lorraines, in the 18th century, the cult of the Virgin was somehow restrained. The Enlightenment policy tended to promote a lay state and was adverse to certain exterior displays, such as the cult of the images, the processions, and the relics. Inside the Church itself there were trends tinged with Jansenism that considered these manifestations to be forms of superstitions.
It was right at the end of that century, in 1784, that they went as far as destroying all the exvoto offerings in Santissima Annunziata, something which, luckily, did not happen in Impruneta, where the cult of the Virgin, however, ran a serious risk of vanishing.
In fact, a document that is worth citing, enables us to know the precise moment in which the image was re-painted, with the purpose of keeping the cult of the Madonna of Impruneta alive. The parish priest of Impruneta, a member of the Giugni marquis family, heard that the supreme commander of the regency, the count of Richecourt, wished to see the image of the Virgin. So “The prudent parish priest, knowing the importance of such a visit, believed it was his duty to see it before him (since for a long time, no one had seen or even uncovered it, as the image had seven capes, one on top of the other) so it was that in a locked church, and secretly, he had it uncovered; but what was his surprise upon finding an almost black board, on which he believed [the image] was painted, and not being able to discern even a trace of the supposed Madonna!
In such an emergency, what was to be done? If the count of Richecourt saw it, it is certain that he would have the panel burned, and the devotion to the Madonna of Impruneta would cease from that time on. The best [solution] was to have it re-painted immediately, and, to this purpose, Mr. Ignazio Hugford was chosen, who, besides having been a good painter in his time, combined, thank God, a lot of religion and piety, as his pupils, well-known to me, attest. He settled in Impruneta in the house of the Parish Priest Giugni and painted the Madonna with the Child in the ancient manner.” Thus, in 1758, Ignazio Hugford restored and re-painted the Madonna in large part. The political operation, promoted by the astute parish priest so as to prevent the cult from dying out, was also an operation that we can call philological.
Ignazio Hugford was, in fact, a very devout painter, but he was also very fond of antiques and he had performed parallel operations on similar paintings. When the Impruneta panel was brought to Florence to be examined at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, in the laboratory at the Fortezza da Basso, they found out that the painting’s support is a wooden panel dating at least to the 13th century (but nothing excludes that it may as well be older), while what remains of the original painting’s overall surface is but 10%; all the rest is Hugford’s, who, however, respected the original colors despite almost completely repainting it.
The cult of the Madonna of Impruneta therefore, continued to exist (there were still processions in the 18th century), even if re-scaled, as it is evident from the number and quality of the objects in the Museum, with the exception of the Reliquary of Saint Theodora, probably the work of an Austrian goldsmith, donated by Pietro Leopoldo to Archbishop Martini who brought it to Impruneta in 1784. The Madonna, at that time, seemed to return back to the beginnings, being her cult limited only to Impruneta and the surrounding countryside.
by Rosanna Caterina Proto Pisani
in, Museo del Tesoro di Santa Maria dell’Impruneta, Guida alla visita del museo e alla scoperta del territorio, a cura di Caterina Caneva. Polistampa 2005