The Alba Madonna was once the most expensive painting in the world.
The Alba Madonna was painted about 1510, after Raphael had arrived in Rome and had fallen under the spell of Michelangelo. It is one of the supreme compositional achievements of Renaissance painting, for balance in a tondo, or round picture, required the utmost delicacy in adjustment. If the masses are not in equilibrium, the picture will seem to roll like a wheel. In the Alba Madonna this complex problem is solved and the result is one of extraordinary stability. The compact group of figures in the foreground is also related to the surrounding landscape, with that feeling for perfect spatial composition which was Raphael’s greatest achievement.
The picture was taken to Spain at the end of the seventeenth century by the Spanish viceroy in Naples, Don Gaspar de Guzman; shortly thereafter it entered the collection of the Duchess of Alba, where it remained for more than a hundred years, thus acquiring its present name. Powerful as the Albas were, they were nonetheless forced by Charles IV to allow Manuel Godoy to buy the picture for his palace of Buenavista, even though it was entailed in their estates. A handsome profligate, Godoy depended for his power on the infatuation of the Queen and the curious complaisance of her cuckold husband. Married to the King’s niece (whose portrait by Goya is shown in plate 568), Godoy became prime minister and virtual ruler. But he was so inept, first opposing the leaders of the French Revolution and then toadying to them, that when Napoleon’s armies moved into Spain, he was arrested by the Prince of the Asturias, the King’s eldest son, who controlled the government for a short time. Godoy’s collection was immediately confiscated and put up for sale. The Albas tried through a lawsuit to recover their Madonna, but failed. Instead, the Danish Ambassador in Madrid, Count de Bourke, bought it, took it to London, and sold it at auction for £4,000 to W. G. Coesvelt-a thousand pounds less than Zoff any had asked for his Raphael a quarter-century earlier. Prices were rising, however, and Coesvelt made a handsome profit a few years later when he sold the Alba Madonna to the Curator of the Hermitage Gallery for £14,000. The Russians in turn waited a hundred years and sold the picture to Andrew Mellon for £233,000. Even though somewhat out of fashion today, Raphael’s paintings have continued to rise in price, and his Madonnas are still the soundest of investments.