The precious tablet was part of the collection of Count Paolo Tosio, inherited by Brescia Municipality in 1844 and founding core of Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo. The Tosio collection
was mainly composed of paintings, but also sculptures, prints, and drawings. The distinguished owner distributed it in his house with the help of Rodolfo Vantini, who arranged some dedicated rooms with the most important pieces. The Count’s taste oriented him towards Neoclassical artists (among contemporaries) and to painters who, in the past, embodied the same ideals of beauty and harmony. He is responsible for the acquisition of two paintings by Raphael, among the most valuable pieces of Pinacoteca and also of this Virgin with Child and young Saint John the Baptist, which in the 19th century was one of the most admired paintings of the collection.
The canvas, destined to private worship, depicts the Virgin Mary and a young Saint John the Baptist in adoration of the Child. The saint is kneeling on a book, probably the Old Testament, which is considered as obsolete with the birth of Christ, here painted as a master while he is turning the pages of a small book, at the centre of the group. The linking role between Old and New Testament, often represented by Saint John the Baptist, is emphasized also by his posture on the parapet: it marks the boundary between the space occupied by the observer and the one depicted in the painting.
For what concerns the attribution, the painting has always been associated to the name of the Bolognese workshop of Francia family, though to different painters. After the first inventories assigned the painting to a non-existent Antonio Francia, from 1868 onwards it has been attributed to Francesco by all scholars, even though some recognised the presence of another helper from the workshop. The typology of the Child, inspired by the painting style of Lorenzo Costa, is characteristic of the early phase of Francia career, but the painting should be ascribed to the first years of the 16th century, when evident references to Costa are softened by the expressiveness of Perugino, who worked in Bologna in 1497. Francia studied Costa’s art, and this is clear in the depiction of the Child but also in the bizarre outline of the chiselled clouds: this is an evident reference to Ferrara tradition, in contrast with the exquisite delicacy of the landscape.
The attention to detail in the painting suggests a strong presence of Francesco Francia not only in the creation but also in the painting process of the artwork. There is another version of the same painting exhibited in Budapest (Szépművészeti Múzeum), which follows the Tosio Martinengo version of at least ten years, probably in the last working years of the painter. In the Budapest version, despite its high quality, the possibility of a strong presence of helping hands from the workshop is more than just a hypothesis.