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This painting is altogether typical of the elegant classicising compositions of the Viterbese Romanelli, a painter whose style hardly undergoes any noticeable evolution. Despite this, the execution of the painting can still be dated on stylistic grounds to the 1630s, not long after Romanelli had trained with Pietro da Cortona. This dating would be justified through a comparison with a work by Cortona, the Rape of Helen, with which the Thyssen picture shares the slight, delicately drawn facial lines of the protagonists and the instantaneous quality of the brushwork which produces, in the Roman picture, the probably intentional impression that the painting is unfinished.
Although any attempt to determine the dates of this painting on stylistic grounds is redundant it corresponds, albeit now in an altered state, to a commission of 1635 of Cardinal Francesco Barberini for the gallery of his residence in the Palazzo della Cancelleria. The canvas is recorded several times in the Barberini archives, which reveal that the work was vertical in format with an arched top, rather than horizontal as it is today. The missing portion contained God the father and the Holy Spirit on clouds: "Adi 20 Maggio 1635/ Fatto fare al Sig.re Gio. Francesco pittore Romanelli Un quatro fatto p di sopra a menzo torno alto palmi nove largo palmi setti menzo con la Madonna che tiene p la mano Jesuchristo ch vanno à piedi in viaggio con Gioseppe et Angelo che mena p la corda l'Asinello e paesi et arboli, et per disopra un Dio padre con nuvole et l'ospirito Santo sotte De quale no fo fatto copia da Sig.re Mariano Vecchio et ritoccato dal detto Sig.re Gio. Francesco et fo donato alle Moniche [...]" (Biblioteca Vaticana, Archivio Barberini, Libro di Ricordi della Guardaroba, segnato C, 1633-1635, c. 55r.)
Later, the canvas re-appears in the 1649 and 1679 inventories of the collections of Francesco Barberini, on the first occasion with its correct authorship, and in the second case, surprisingly, without the artist's name mentioned. After this date its was inherited by the Prince Maffeo Barberini, after whose death it appears inventoried at his residence, the Villa Bagnaia, in 1686, where Romanelli's name is again mentioned. Later, the painting was owned by Cardinal Benedetto Barberini and appears as no. 457 of his inventory of 1844, in which its recorded measurements are greater by a palm in height (hgt. plm.s 10, wid. plm.s 8). It was then owned by Duke Carlo Felice Barberini, and inherited by his daughter, Princess Anna Corsini (who died in 1911). It appears as no. 198 in the inventory drawn up on the death of Princess Anna of the works of art in the palazzo at Tagliacozzo in Abruzzo: "Fuga in Egitto, Giovan Francesco Romanelli. Altezza m 2.18 x 1.90, Lire 1000." After the death, in 1919, of Anne's widower, Prince Tommaso Corsini, the painting reappears in Florence, owned by Riccardo Funghini in 1952, who sold it to a Detroit art collector, Mary H. Zimmerman.
In the Barberini documents up to 1686 the painting is described as having a rounded top which, as we mentioned above, contained a representation of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit between clouds above the Holy Family returning from Egypt (Aronberg Lavin 1975, p. 35). After this date, no further mention is made of the arched painted part which had been separated. There are, however, clear traces of red pigment on the upper edge of the canvas which probably correspond to the red mantle of God the Father.
There are a dense web of morphological relations relating to the specific elements of the composition, or rather the single figures within it, starting with the model for the face of the young Jesus, whose diagonal suggests the Sybil in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, with the protagonist of the altarpiece on the high altar of the Duomo of Viterbo (The Glory of Saint Lawrence, and especially with the Orion fresco in the Palazzo Costaguti in Rome, albeit from the late 1640s, after Romanelli's Parisian period. Similarly, St. Joseph is related in type, albeit reversed, with Pluto in The Rape of Proserpine, sold by Christie's in Rome (19 May 1978, lot 219) while, for example, the languid aspect of the face of the angel on the left of The Return from the Flight to Egypt immediately suggests the Saint Cecilia in the Pinacoteca Capitolina. While from a strictly typological point of view there are good reasons to juxtapose the present work with the Pharaoh's Dream, exhibited at the Heim Gallery of London in the summer of 1976, both in regard to the figure of Joseph and the angel who holds the donkey's bridle (corresponding to the figure on the extreme left of the group of three), in a larger stylistic context the work should be seen in the context of two of Romanelli's most important easel paintings: The Adoration of the Shepherds once with Colnaghi in London (1962), and the oval of Venus and Adonis in the Musée des Jacobins in Morlaix. Overall, the manner and the figures of the first picture are really close to those in this Return from the Flight to Egypt, particularly in the group with St. Joseph, a child with a dove, and a peasant woman. The second canvas argues even more strongly for a similar date. Looking at the detail, there is an undeniable family resemblance between the face of the figure of Venus and that of the Virgin in the Thyssen canvas. Finally, the familiar appearance of Adonis can almost be superimposed over the angel on the left of the Flight into Egypt in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. It has almost the same pose as Romanelli's St. Joseph.