This well-known artwork has been widely reproduced on Christmas cards, holy cards and other objects. The original was painted by Roberto Ferruzzi, who was a familiar sight in Italy during the final years of the Victorian era.
Although Ferruzzi called the painting “Madonnina,” it is better known today as “Madonna of the Streets.” Some reproductions show embellishments (billowing clouds and halos) that were added over the years to enhance religious interpretation.
The location of Ferruzzi’s original painting is unknown. But a startling story about the history of the artwork was uncovered when the daughter of Italian immigrants traced her roots. Mary Bovo, now known as Sister Angela Marie, shared her discovery before suffering a stroke last August. After reading her story, you will understand why her family is on a quest to find Ferruzzi’s original painting.
Angelina and Antonio Bovo left Italy and settled in Oakland, California, in 1906. Mary Bovo was the seventh of their 10 children. The family lived comfortably until 1929, when 42-year-old Antonio was stricken with influenza and died.
His bereft widow, unskilled in English, struggled to provide for her large family. But the stress caught up with Angelina: She suffered a devastating nervous breakdown and spent the rest of her life in a mental hospital. The four younger Bovo children, including eight-year-old Mary, were placed in orphanages and foster homes. Although the children were scattered, they managed to keep track of each other and remained devoted to their mother until her death in 1972.
When Mary Bovo was in the fifth grade at a Catholic orphanage, her teacher was Sister Angela. This teacher was much revered by Mary, who recalls, “It was then and there that God called me” to religious life.
Years later, Mary Bovo entered the Order of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, a venerable French community founded in 1650. She became Sister Angela Marie, in honor of her mother and her fifth-grade teacher.
Throughout her life, Sister Angela Marie was haunted by questions about her family. Her father’s sudden death followed by her mother’s mental breakdown resulted in a complete cessation of communication with relatives who still lived in Venice, Italy. Were any of them still alive? What could they tell her about her ancestry?
With the encouragement of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, Sister Angela Marie went to Italy in 1984. She located two of her mother’s sisters, who were then in their 80’s. These relatives had given up hope of ever finding out what became of their beloved sibling who went to the United States after her marriage many years earlier. Imagine their emotions upon meeting one of her offspring. “I resemble my mother,” notes Sister Angela Marie.
Aunt Giulia still lived in the same Venetian house where she grew up with 14 brothers and sisters. The frail aunt had something special to show her niece: It was a likeness of Sister Angela Marie’s mother when she was a young girl.
The image was not a faded photo. It was a print of Roberto Ferruzzi’s popular “Madonnina.” Sister Angela Marie was informed that her mother modeled for the painting around the turn of the last century.
She had seen prints of the popular portrait many times and assumed it to be just another Madonna rendering. But she had no idea that her mother was the young girl with the beatific face who posed for the artist so long ago in Venice.
The Bovo family was thrilled by this discovery but felt compelled to verify the story. They tracked down Roberto Ferruzzi’s two surviving nephews, who had preserved the artist’s personal notes.
Those documents provided indisputable proof that Sister Angela Marie Bovo’s mother was the young girl in “Madonnina.” In addition, the baby in the painting was identified as the girl’s brother Giovanni, who was one year old at the time.
Ferruzzi had been in Venice when he noticed the girl with the baby— she was draped against the cold and holding the child close to help them both stay warm. It was obvious that Angelina, then 11, was too young to be the baby’s mother. But she displayed an arresting maternal gentleness that was irresistible to the artist.
How Ferruzzi was able to persuade this girl from a good family to pose for him remains a mystery. Was it flattery? Did he offer a significant monetary incentive that this child from a large family couldn’t resist?
Angelina couldn’t wait to report the exciting adventure to her mother, who was so shocked that she swore the child to secrecy. It appears that Angelina never broke her word: “Mother never mentioned the painting to us either before or after she became ill,” says Sister Angela Marie. “She kept the secret in her heart.”
Ferruzzi entered the portrait in a prestigious 1897 exhibition in Venice. While he later denied there was any intention of portraying the Blessed Mother, he provocatively titled the work “Madonnina,” or “Little Mother.”
But Catholic art lovers in Italy promptly perceived it to be a fresh and charming depiction of Mary and the Christ Child. That misconception is probably responsible for the painting’s enduring popularity—the image is a dependable seller in stores that sell religious goods.
A few other Ferruzzi paintings warranted exhibition in the elite museums of Venice and Turin, winning him contemporaneous acclaim. But today Ferruzzi is all but forgotten, save for his “Madonnina” that became well-known in Italy and the international Catholic world.
The heavy influx of Italians passing through Ellis Island in the early 1900’s introduced Catholic America to the portrait, which was embraced enthusiastically. The image showed the young girl’s vulnerability and sweetness. In addition, the timeless nature of her mantle and the cold background suggested the new title under which the artwork was so successfully marketed: “Madonna of the Streets.”
While Sister Angela Marie is delighted by the popularity of her mother’s portrait, she explains why her relatives don’t like the title “Madonna of the Streets.” “My family in Italy feels that streets refers to prostitution,” she says. “The original title, ‘Madonnina,’ actually means ‘Little Mother.’” That interpretation is a more accurate description of the young girl holding her baby brother.
Sister Angela Marie says, “The family has tried to locate the original—I would love to see it.” The painting vanished from Italy, perhaps during World War II. It may be in the innocent hands of someone who has no idea of its value or its significance to the Bovo family.
Sister Angela Marie says the most recent lead suggests that it is “somewhere in Pennsylvania,” unwittingly donated by an unidentified priest to a parishioner’s private art collection about 50 years ago. The family hasn’t given up hope of finding their missing Madonnina. “We wouldn’t question the ownership at all. We just wish to see the painting with our own eyes—touch the brush strokes, realize the true colors and know that they were applied at the moment the artist was close to our mother and uncle.”
Barbara E. Stevens is a retired copywriter and Army librarian. She lives in Colorado Springs, where she volunteers with an adult literacy program and writes about Catholic traditions and art.
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