Francesca Alexander (1837-1917), "The Encounter of the Holy Family with the Gypsy woman on the Flight into Egypt.
Francesca Alexander, a friend and collaborator of John Ruskin's, was an artist as well as an authority on old Italian songs. In the image she shows a gypsy woman in traditional costume reading the palm of the infant Christ. The scene is based on a Medieval song that was still being sung in Italy in the 19th century. These songs are as much a primary source for Renaissance Italy as Sannazaro or Colonna.
As I noted last week, when Marcantonio Michel saw the "Tempest" in the collection of Venetian patrician, Gabriele Vendramin, in 1530, he described it as “the landscape on canvas with the storm, the gypsy and the soldier, made by the hand of Giorgio da Castelfranco.” Since that time, however, most scholars have noted that the man lacks the arms and armor of a soldier and that the woman does not resemble a gypsy.
Last week I tried to show why Michiel might have made his mistake. In my paper on the Tempest I argue that the nude Woman in the Tempest is the Madonna nursing the Infant Jesus on the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt." Coincidentally, there is an appearance of a gypsy or zingara in the legendary account of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.
Here is the account by Anna Jameson in “Legends of the Madonna,” a book published in 1885 and available online.
"Before quitting the subject of the Riposo, I must mention a very pretty and poetical legend…
The religious ballad I allude to must have been popular in the sixteenth century; it exists in the Provencal dialect, in German, and in Italian;… The theme is, in all these versions, substantially the same. The Virgin, on her arrival in Egypt, is encountered by a gypsy (Zingara or Zingarella), who crosses the Child’s palm after the gypsy manner…
An Italian version which lies before me is entitled, Canzonetta nuova, sopra la Madonna quando si parto in Egitto col Bambino Gesu e San Giuseppe…
It begins with a conversation between the Virgin, who has just arrived from her long journey, and the gypsy-woman, who thus salutes her:--
God save thee, fair Lady, and give thee good luck
Welcome, good old man, with this thy fair Child!
Well met, sister mine! God give thee grace, and of
His infinite mercy forgive thee thy sins!
Ye are tired and drooping, poor pilgrims, as I think,
Seeking a night’s lodging. Lady, will thou choose to alight?
O sister mine! Full of courtesy, God of his infinite goodness reward thee for thy charity. We are come from Nazareth, and we are without a place to lay our heads, arrived in a strange land, all tired and weary with the way!
The Zingarella then offers them a resting place, and straw and fodder for the ass, which being accepted, she asks leave to tell their fortune, but begins by recounting, in about thirty stanzas, all the past history of the Virgin pilgrim; she then asks to see the Child—
Ora tu, Signora mia,
Che sei piena di cortesia,
Mostramelo per favore
Lo tuo Figlio Redentore!
And now, O Lady mine, that art full of courtesy, grant me to look upon thy Son, the Redeemer!
The Virgin takes him from the arms of Joseph—
Datemi, o caro sposo,
Lo mio Figlio grazioso!
Quando il vide sta meschina
Zingarella, che indovina!
Give me, dear husband, my lovely boy, that this poor gypsy, who is a prophetess, may look upon him.
The gypsy responds with becoming admiration and humility, praises the beauty of the Child, and then proceeds to examine his palm; which having done, she breaks forth into a prophecy of all the awful future, tells how he would be baptized, and tempted, scourged, and finally hung upon a cross—
Questo Figlio accarezzato
Tu lo vedrai ammazato
Sopra d’una dura croce
Figlio bello! Figlio dolce!
But consoles the disconsolate Mother, doomed to honour for the sake of us sinners—
Sei arrivata a tanti onori
Per noi altri Peccatori!
And ends by begging an alms…But not alms of gold or of silver, but the gift of true repentance and eternal life.
Vo’una vera contrizione
Per la tua intercezione,
Accio st’alma dopo morte
Tragga alle celesti porte!
And so the story ends."
Mrs. Jameson, "Legends of the Madonna", Boston, 1885, Pp. 370-375.