Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Madonnina" by Ferruzzi

(My print that hangs in our entry hall
Madonna of the Streets )
My love affair with "Madonnina" began in parochial school in the sixties. At Confirmation, confirmands were given a St. Joseph's missal. Mine was a handsome red bound book to help me comprehend and follow the Mass. I still have it. It's darn near miraculous that it survived a house fire, a major flood & several moves.

In between the whisper-thin pages are Holy Cards. Girls collected them like boys collected baseball cards. They were inspirational and often stunning portrayals of the saints, Christ, the Blessed Mother, the Holy Family or as He was called then, the Holy Ghost. Often on the back of the card was a prayer. My most beloved holy card was the "Madonna of the Streets".

Gaze upon the face of the "Madonnina", the little mother, in the photo above. Have you ever seen a more angelic expression? She is so young, innocent yet there is a strength about her....that mother's protectiveness for her child. Meditating on this lovely girl, a sense of peacefulness washes over me. It's exactly how I'd picture Blessed Mary, a young mother holding the Christ Child safely against her heart.

Truth be known, the beauty in the portrait is only 11 years old and she's cradling her year old brother. Angelina and Giovanni Cian caught the eye of Italian painter,  Roberto Ferruzzi, while he was in Venice. Intrigued by the girl, he asked her to model for him. I'm sure the family was scandalized by such a proposition. Perhaps, the family desperately needed the money. If that had been the case, they accepted it with the promise that no one would know of the arrangement. The fact that the painting was also entitled, "Madonna of the Streets", was enough reason to keep the identity of the girl a secret.

"Madonna della Strada" was exhibited in 1897, and although Ferruzzi did not intend the painting to be a depiction of the Blessed Mother and Child, it was immediately seen as such by Italian Catholics. In the early 20th century, Italian immigrants to America were enraptured with the painting and so began a love affair with Ferruzzi's, "Madonnina".

The identity of the lovely girl and child remained a secret until 1984. No one could have been more surprised at the true identity of the Madonna than Mary Bovo who later became Sr. Angela Marie, order of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Mary's parents, Angelina and Antonio Bovo, left Italy and settled with their 10 children in Oakland, California, in 1906. The family lived comfortably until 1929, when 42-year-old Antonio died of influenza. Angelina struggled to provide for her family, the stress causing her a nervous breakdown that confined her to a mental institution until her death in 1972.

The children had been placed in orphanages and foster homes, but by the grace of God, were able to keep track of one another. It is not unusual for a person that has experienced family separation to seek their roots. This was so with Sr. Angela Marie. On a visit to Italy in 1984, she was reunited with two elderly aunts. Her resemblance to her mother had not gone unnoticed by the relatives. Excitedly, Aunt Giulia showed Sr. Angela Marie a special print of Roberto Ferruzzi's beloved portrait  "Madonnina".

Sister Angela Marie was informed, "this is your mother". The nun agreed, thinking her aunt referred to Our Blessed Mother. "No,"  her aunt insisted. "Your real mother." What a revelation, what a shock that the serene girl in the print was none other than her mother, Angelina Cian-Bovo. The truth of this discovery had been verified in preserved personal notes belonging to Ferruzzi. For her entire life, Angelina, treasured this secret in her heart. It is much like the Blessed Mother treasuring the many mysteries and prophecies concerning her Son in her heart

Sadly, the original painting has never been found. The last known owner was John George Alexander Leishman, a diplomat and steel millionaire who died in France in 1924. It is thought that the original vanished during WWII and could now be in a private collection somewhere in Pennsylvania. 
The remarkable story associated with this portrait continued to unfold. A few years ago, Sr Angela Marie was rummaging through the meager belongings of her mother when she came upon a photo taken at St. Theresa's Convalescent Home. There was Angelina with a shawl gently draped over her head, her gaze heavenward, hands clasped together.
Was this just a pose of an eccentric woman confined to a sanatorium for a half a century? Or had a long ago promise finally been broken? 75 years of silence and the secret had found a voice. God had opened a window for this tucked away promise to be freed, at last. Nothing is a coincidence.

 There are many renditions of this famous painting. In some, the Madonna is wearing a blue cloak or a gold hood. In another she is surrounded by clouds and celestial beings. But all have one thing in common, the ethereal countenance of Angelina Bovo. So beatific is her expression that members of the Sisters Of Life receive a medal of the "Madonnina" at their first profession.

Though Ferruzzi's other works,
"The Girl"
"The Girl", "La Prima Penitenza", and "Zitto" to name a few, have enjoyed recognition among Italian painters, his "Madonnina" is the most famous. I believe the success of this painting is a message from God Who found favor with Angelina Bovo. The little Madonna beckons His children to open their hearts to her Son, the Christ.
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(Sr Angela Marie 50th Jubilee)




  1. What a wealth of great information - thank you. And I'm so glad to visit here again :). May God bless you!

  2. Aw thanks, Nancy. There are so many aspects of Our Blessed Mother to write about, to ponder, to love. I feel it a privilege to do so.
    On a different note...I'm doing very well. Life is good. Keep in touch.

  3. I love this painting! Thanks for sharing the story behind it, Nanette. I'm so glad you are blogging again :)

  4. I forgot to add that I sent you an e-mail but it was returned to me saying the delivery failed for some reason. I'm not sure why it failed.

    Praying for you!

  5. nice to hear from you. Thanks for the comments. Got your email. Will email back ASAP. Hugs. God Bless. N

  6. Here is a reproduction of Madonnina picture

  7. Thank you for your kind suggestion

  8. I have this and it is marked Litho in USA and has the number 1812 on it

  9. I Have this and it is marked Litho in USA and 1812 in lower left hand corner

  10. I have followed this story for the past 30 years since Jaquilyn Galloway posted in a Catholic Newsletter. I have a very old oil painting of the Maddoninna that looks exactly like this print. I have tried to get in touch with someone in the Ferruzi family but haven't heard back from anyone. Do you know how I can reach one of the family members about this painting that I have? Thank you so much.

  11. To Sherry & Rachel: forgive me for not replying sooner. The photo at the top of this post is my personal print. It has been in my family for years. I cherish it. The oil painting sounds like a wonderful acquisition. Lucky and blessed you! I wonder if you could contact the Order of Sisters that Sister Angelina belonged to? If I come up with anything, I'll let you know. Take care and stay close to Her Immaculate Heart. N