This sculpture group of the Annunciation has been part of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection since 10 May 1928, when it was acquired by Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza through J. & S. Goldschmidt & Co. at the estate sale of Oscar Huldschinsky (1846−1931), organised by Cassirer and Helbing. While in the possession of Huldschinsky, a collector and industrialist born in Breslau, the figures adorned each end of the mantelpiece in the drawing room of his Berlin residence. In 1906, still owned by Huldschinsky, the group was shown for the first time in the exhibition staged by the Kaiser Friedrich-Museums-Vereins in the German capital, and in 1930 it was displayed at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich as part of the Rohoncz collection, the original name of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collections.
The theme of the Annunciation is linked to Venice, as legend has it that the city was founded on 25 March, the date on which the delivery of the message to Mary is commemorated. In addition, the most important feast in honour of the Virgin is the Assumption, which is celebrated on the same day that the city’s symbolic marriage to the sea was enacted. Both festivities entrusted the protection of the city to Christ’s mother. However, in spite of the link between the theme and the city, it has not been possible to connect the commissioning of this piece with Venice, though Wilhelm von Bode cited a Venetian chapel as its possible original location in his 1909 catalogue of the Huldschinsky collection.
Sansovino’s design follows the traditional guidelines for the position of the figures. Mary is on the right, with her left leg forward and her head slightly turned towards the angel who has appeared before her; in her left hand is the book she has been reading. The angel, on her right, leans forward to kneel before her and holds his hands to his chest, lightly pressing it with his fingers. Despite the volume and fine folds of the drapery covering the figures, Sansovino masterfully causes them to cling to the bodies to highlight parts of their anatomy: for example, the Virgin’s red tunic draws attention to her belly, navel and breasts. The proportion and classical features of the faces of both figures, which are made of clay – an unusual material for Sansovino – are extremely elegant and sophisticated. An important factor is the polychromy, which is evenly applied and golden in the angel, in accordance with his celestial nature, and beautifully complements the colours chosen for the Virgin, the traditional red for the tunic and blue and green for the cloak.
The Annunciation has been attributed to Jacopo Sansovino ever since it was brought to attention by critics; its dating, however, has been more widely debated. The date that is currently accepted by most scholars, around 1535, was established by Bruce Boucher (1991). Boucher took into account the suggestions of Cornelius von Fabriczy (1909) and Hans R. Weihrauch (1935), who considered the ensemble to have been executed around the same time as the bronzes for the Loggetta.
Both figures were restored in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza’s workshop in 2017. Old overpaint applied during early restoration work, of which there is no record, was removed. Fragments of the angel had been reattached with modelling paste and covered in paint, particularly in the right arm, left leg and base. Saint Gabriel is currently incomplete, as two grooves are visible in his back where his wings were probably inserted.
This Annunciation is an exceptional loan that is on view in room 6 of the Museum.