The Virgin with the laughing Child
- Place of origin:
after 1460 (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64a, The Robert H. Smith Gallery, case 1
This sculpture is one of the most famous pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum - and yet we are not certain who modelled it. The leading fifteenth-century Florentine sculptors Antonio Rossellino, Andrea del Verrocchio and Desiderio da Settignano are amongst those who have been named. The terracotta was for many years attributed to Rossellino, but when the sculpture was lent for the first time to an exhibition in Florence in spring 2019, scholars presented an attribution to the young Leonardo da Vinci, while he was in Verrocchio's workshop (c.1472). This idea was first put forward in 1899, and won favour for several years. The maker intriguingly combines stylistic elements from each of the named sculptors. But the emphasis on the human relationship between mother and child and the naturalistic treatment of the subject are typical of the time.
The statuette has generally been considered to be a sketch model for a larger marble group. However, it is probably one of the small-scale devotional objects that were so popular in Florentine homes, but now stripped of its naturalistic paint, traces of which appear to remain. Thermoluminenscence testing can provide a guide as to when a terracotta was last fired. Tests undertaken on the sculpture indicate that the earliest date is 1460, although the sculpture is likely to be later in date. Technical and art-historical research is continuing with the view to unravel more of the sculpture's unknown history.
Terracotta figure of the Virgin holding a smiling Christ Child.
Place of Origin
after 1460 (made)
Materials and Techniques
Height: 49 cm, Width: 27 cm, Depth: 24.5 cm, Weight: 14.42 kg, Width: 27 cm, Depth: 24.5 cm, Weight: 14.2 kg
Object history note
This sculpture, one of the most celebrated pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum, has been attributed to a variety of fifteenth-century Florentine sculptors, including Antonio Rossellino (1427-1479), Desiderio da Settignano (1428-1464), Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), to whom it has been most recently reattributed (Caglioti 2019). The Christ Child resembles works by Desiderio, while there are connections with those by Rossellino, such as the Virgin and Child on the Cardinal of Portugal's tomb in San Miniato al Monte in Florence of 1461-66. The drapery and other elements also show links to drawn studies produced in Verrocchio's shop, and those attributed to Leonardo himself. Leonardo was deeply engaged in making sculpture, and the biographer and artist Giorgio Vasari recounts how, in his youth, Leonardo made in clay, 'some heads of women that are smiling...'. Unfortunately, some of his planned works were never achieved and we do not have any secure sculptures by the artist with which to make a comparison. The fascinating combination of styles within this sculpture, that has led to its shifting authorship, therefore needs further exploration.
The statuette has generally been considered to be a sketch-model for a larger work in marble, but it is more likely to have been one of the household images that were popular in Florence, now stripped of its painted surface, traces of which appear to remain. Thermoluminenscence testing can provide a guide as to when a terracotta was last fired. Tests undertaken on the sculpture indicate that the earliest date that it could have been fired is 1460, although the sculpture is likely to be later.
Terracotta figure, The Virgin with the Laughing Child, Italy (Florence), after 1460.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Paul Williamson, ed., European Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London : V&A, 1996. p. 78, ill. ISBN: 1 85177 188 3.
Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1858. In: Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, Arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol I. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 14.
Maclagan, Eric and Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Italian Sculpture. Text. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1932, p. 65.
Pope-Hennessy, John, assisted by Lightbown, Ronald. Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1964, vol.I, cat. no.104, pp.126-127 with earlier literature; vol.3, fig.122.
Pope-Hennessy, John. The Virgin with the Laughing Child. V&A, London: 1972
Bellosi, Luciano (ed.). Francesco di Giorgio e il Rinascimento a Siena 1450-1500. Exhibition Catalogue, Milan 1993, pp. 222&224, ill. P. 224 (detail)
Avery, Charles. Florentine Renaiisance Sculpture. New York, 1970. p. 114, pl. 87
Penny, Nicholas. The Materials of Sculpture. New Haven and London: 1993, pp. 205-209.
Carl, Doris. Benedetto da Maiano. A Florentine Sculptor at the Threshold of the High Renaissance. Regensburg, 2006, pp. 98, 100-101, fig. 40.
Bormand, Marc; Paolozzi Strozzi, Beatrice; Penny, Nicholas (eds.). Desiderio da Settignano. Sculptor of Renaissance Florence. Exhibition Catalogue. Washington, 2007, p. 166.
Villata, Edoardo. Intorno a Leonardo scultore: una proposta di metodo e un' ipotesi di applicazione. Raccolta Vinciana. Fascicolo XXXIV, 2011, pp. 53-102.
Marani, Pietro C. and Fiorio, Maria Teresa, ed. by, Leonardo da Vinci: The Design of the World, exh. cat., Milan, 2015 p. 111 and fig. 4.
Caglioti, Francesco in Matteo Civitali e il suo tempo. Pittori, scultori e orafi a Lucca nel tardo Quattrocento, exh. cat., Lucca (Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, 3 April-11 July 2004), 2004, pp.67 fig.68, 71-2, 77 nn.91-2
Villata, Edoardo, 'Some Notes on Leonardo da Vinci as a Sculptor' in Zoltán Kárpáti (ed.), Leonardo da Vinci & The Budapest Horse and Rider. Exh. cat., (Museum of Fine Arts) Budapest, 2018, pp.73-91
Caglioti, Francesco, 'The Virgin with the Laughing Child', cat. entry in Francesco Caglioti and Andrea de Marchi (eds), Verrocchio. Master of Leonardo, (exh. cat. Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 9 March - 14 July 2019), Florence 2019, pp.280-1, cat.no. 9.9
Labels and date
VIRGIN AND CHILD
This lively image is widely known as The Virgin with the Laughing Child. Its maker remains a mystery, but some believe it to be by the young Leonardo da Vinci. The sculpture intriguingly combines his style with those of sculptors Antonio Rossellino and Desiderio da Settignano. Now stripped of its naturalistic paint, it was probably one of the small-scale devotional objects that were popular in Florentine homes. Scientific analysis (thermoluminescence testing) indicates that the clay was fired after 1460.
Museum no. 4495-1858
This lively image is widely known as the Virgin with the Laughing Child. It is probably
a model for a marble. Or, it may be one of the small-scale devotional objects that
were so popular in Florentine homes, but now stripped of its naturalistic paint. The style suggests that it is the work of Antonio Rossellino, the most important member of a family of sculptors. Scientific analysis (thermoluminescence testing) also indicates that the clay was fired around 1465. 
Antonio Rossellino (1427-79)
This sculpture, widely known as The Virgin with the Laughing Child, may be a model for a marble. Alternatively, it may be one of the small-scale devotional objects that were so popular in Florentine homes, but now stripped of its naturalistic paint. Antonio Rossellino was the most important member of a family of sculptors.
Museum no. 4495-1858 
Sculpture; Christianity; Religion