well-known artwork has been widely reproduced on Christmas cards,
holy cards and other objects. The original was painted by Roberto
Ferruzzi, who was a familiar sight in Italy during the final
years of the Victorian era.
called the painting “Madonnina,” it is better known today as
“Madonna of the Streets.” Some reproductions show embellishments
(billowing clouds and halos) that were added over the years
to enhance religious interpretation.
The location of
Ferruzzi’s original painting is unknown. But a startling story
about the history of the artwork was uncovered when the daughter
of Italian immigrants traced her roots. Mary Bovo, now known
as Sister Angela Marie, shared her discovery before suffering
a stroke last August. After reading her story, you will understand
why her family is on a quest to find Ferruzzi’s original painting.
Angelina and Antonio
Bovo left Italy and settled in Oakland, California, in 1906.
Mary Bovo was the seventh of their 10 children. The family lived
comfortably until 1929, when 42-year-old Antonio was stricken
with influenza and died.
bereft widow, unskilled in English, struggled to provide for
her large family. But the stress caught up with Angelina: She
suffered a devastating nervous breakdown and spent the rest
of her life in a mental hospital. The four younger Bovo children,
including eight-year-old Mary, were placed in orphanages and
foster homes. Although the children were scattered, they managed
to keep track of each other and remained devoted to their mother
until her death in 1972.
When Mary Bovo
was in the fifth grade at a Catholic orphanage, her teacher
was Sister Angela. This teacher was much revered by Mary, who
recalls, “It was then and there that God called me” to religious
Years later, Mary
Bovo entered the Order of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, a venerable
French community founded in 1650. She became Sister Angela Marie,
in honor of her mother and her fifth-grade teacher.
life, Sister Angela Marie was haunted by questions about her
family. Her father’s sudden death followed by her mother’s mental
breakdown resulted in a complete cessation of communication
with relatives who still lived in Venice, Italy. Were any of
them still alive? What could they tell her about her ancestry?
With the encouragement
of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, Sister Angela
Marie went to Italy in 1984. She located two of her mother’s
sisters, who were then in their 80’s. These relatives had given
up hope of ever finding out what became of their beloved sibling
who went to the United States after her marriage many years
earlier. Imagine their emotions upon meeting one of her offspring.
“I resemble my mother,” notes Sister Angela Marie.
Aunt Giulia still
lived in the same Venetian house where she grew up with 14 brothers
and sisters. The frail aunt had something special to show her
niece: It was a likeness of Sister Angela Marie’s mother when
she was a young girl.
The image was
not a faded photo. It was a print of Roberto Ferruzzi’s popular
“Madonnina.” Sister Angela Marie was informed that her mother
modeled for the painting around the turn of the last century.
She had seen prints
of the popular portrait many times and assumed it to be just
another Madonna rendering. But she had no idea that her mother
was the young girl with the beatific face who posed for the
artist so long ago in Venice.
The Bovo family
was thrilled by this discovery but felt compelled to verify
the story. They tracked down Roberto Ferruzzi’s two surviving
nephews, who had preserved the artist’s personal notes.
provided indisputable proof that Sister Angela Marie Bovo’s
mother was the young girl in “Madonnina.” In addition, the baby
in the painting was identified as the girl’s brother Giovanni,
who was one year old at the time.
Ferruzzi had been
in Venice when he noticed the girl with the baby— she was draped
against the cold and holding the child close to help them both
stay warm. It was obvious that Angelina, then 11, was too young
to be the baby’s mother. But she displayed an arresting maternal
gentleness that was irresistible to the artist.
How Ferruzzi was
able to persuade this girl from a good family to pose for him
remains a mystery. Was it flattery? Did he offer a significant
monetary incentive that this child from a large family couldn’t
wait to report the exciting adventure to her mother, who was
so shocked that she swore the child to secrecy. It appears that
Angelina never broke her word: “Mother never mentioned the painting
to us either before or after she became ill,” says Sister Angela
Marie. “She kept the secret in her heart.”
the portrait in a prestigious 1897 exhibition in Venice. While
he later denied there was any intention of portraying the Blessed
Mother, he provocatively titled the work “Madonnina,” or “Little
But Catholic art
lovers in Italy promptly perceived it to be a fresh and charming
depiction of Mary and the Christ Child. That misconception is
probably responsible for the painting’s enduring popularity—the
image is a dependable seller in stores that sell religious goods.
A few other Ferruzzi
paintings warranted exhibition in the elite museums of Venice
and Turin, winning him contemporaneous acclaim. But today Ferruzzi
is all but forgotten, save for his “Madonnina” that became well-known
in Italy and the international Catholic world.
The heavy influx
of Italians passing through Ellis Island in the early 1900’s
introduced Catholic America to the portrait, which was embraced
enthusiastically. The image showed the young girl’s vulnerability
and sweetness. In addition, the timeless nature of her mantle
and the cold background suggested the new title under which
the artwork was so successfully marketed: “Madonna of the Streets.”
of the Artwork
While Sister Angela
Marie is delighted by the popularity of her mother’s portrait,
she explains why her relatives don’t like the title “Madonna
of the Streets.” “My family in Italy feels that streets refers
to prostitution,” she says. “The original title, ‘Madonnina,’
actually means ‘Little Mother.’” That interpretation is a more
accurate description of the young girl holding her baby brother.
of Sister Angela Marie Bovo
This famous painting became more meaningful
to Sister Angela Marie Bovo after she discovered that
the subjects were close relatives.
Marie says, “The family has tried to locate the original—I would
love to see it.” The painting vanished from Italy, perhaps during
World War II. It may be in the innocent hands of someone who
has no idea of its value or its significance to the Bovo family.
Marie says the most recent lead suggests that it is “somewhere
in Pennsylvania,” unwittingly donated by an unidentified priest
to a parishioner’s private art collection about 50 years ago.
The family hasn’t given up hope of finding their missing Madonnina.
“We wouldn’t question the ownership at all. We just wish to
see the painting with our own eyes—touch the brush strokes,
realize the true colors and know that they were applied at the
moment the artist was close to our mother and uncle.”
years of teaching, Sister Angela Marie Bovo made a major
career switch in the 1970’s. In the years immediately
following Vatican II, “It seemed the opportunity to do
something that might otherwise have been impractical,”
recovering from foot surgery when she had the inspiration.
“For the first time since before entering the convent,
I thought about being a beauty operator. That was the
career I had considered as a very young girl.”
her superior about this childhood dream. “I was given
permission to enroll in the Paris Beauty College in Concord,
California, and graduated in 1977.” Before suffering a
stroke last August, the licensed cosmetologist practiced
her profession on nursing-home residents, homebound people
and prison inmates.
Marie groomed men and women in the Detention Facility
in Martinez, California. She knew some inmates for several
years. Her visits were heralded by exuberant shouts: “Here
comes the hair cutter!”
get nervous about being inside a prison? “I have long
since lost any apprehension I might have had when I first
began to go there,” she said. “Recently, however, the
nature of my clients was brought home to me when I was
required to replace my regular scissors with a blunt model!”
“I never ask why they are in prison, but some choose to
talk about their pasts. Without exception, they insist,
‘I didn’t do it!’ While that may occasionally be true,
there are some actual offenders whom I believe have been
able to convince themselves of their innocence.
“I’m a good
listener, and the prisoners trust me and seem to like
to talk to me,” she said. “I try to encourage them and
assure them that God loves them. I also can hold my own
when it comes to discussing sports and TV.” She smiled
as she recalled her experience. “One prisoner told me,
‘This is the closest I’ve ever been to God.’”
E. Stevens is a retired copywriter and Army librarian.
She lives in Colorado Springs, where she volunteers with
an adult literacy program and writes about Catholic traditions
Ever since we published this article in January
2000, we have been swamped with inquiries for additional
information about Roberto Ferruzzi's world-famous
painting known as "Madonna of the Streets"
Unfortunately, neither we nor the author, Barbara
Stevens, are able to provide facts about the size
of the painting, the artist's signature, appraisals,
etc. Sister Angela Marie Bovo, who was interviewed
for the article, suffered a stroke shortly after
the interview and has been in poor health. Thus,
we are asking you to consult an art expert instead
of us for additional information.
The sheer number of people who have contacted us
testifies to the fact that there are many authentic-looking
reproductions, and one of them may be the original.
But no one has notified us that their painting has
been verified by art experts to be Ferruzzi's original.
If your painting has been verified by experts, we
would like to know that.
Some details about the painting and artist can be
found by searching the University of Dayton's Website
Art experts should be consulted for appraisals and
Thank you for your interest.