The Adoration of the Magi
(Luca Cambiaso)



The Adoration of the Magi, circa 1550

This luminous panel is a wonderful example of Luca Cambiaso’s early style and one which presents several interesting clues to his development between 1545 and 1550. Cambiasos confident and fluid brushwork, which he used to simultaneously outline and shadow his figures, attests to the precocious talent that separated his work from that of his contemporaries and made him become one of the most admired painters of his time. It is a style which is more often found in Cambiaso’s earlier fresco work, such as his decorations for the Prefettura in Genoa, dated to around 1547-48; it also recalls a frescoed frieze by Niccola Granello in the Villa Doria in Pegli, which dates to around five years later.

Closely set in a darkened interior, the three Magi approach to pay homage to the Child, who, supported by his Mother, stands and raises his chubby right arm in a gesture of blessing to one of the Magi, who kneels at his feet, bearing a pyxis, movement stayed by the protecting arm and left hand of the Virgin is naturalistic enough to possibly derive from a life study. Moreover, the verismo in the sagging skin of the magus’s face and his veined hands would suggest that this figure was from life studies. It has even been suggested that the almost exclusive intimacy between the magus, the Virgin, and the Child, might imply that Cambiaso actually painted this figure as a portrait of the commissioning patron of the panel.

The other Magi and Joseph are depicted (solely, it would seem because the iconography of this subject demands it) flanking the central trio, albeit in the background, – the Magi on the right and Joseph on the left. This arrangement is not particularly inventive, nor does it fully acknowledge Cambiaso’s youthful capacity for foreshortening, although Joseph’s head does give a hint of this development. By focusing his composition upon the magus’s humble offering of his single gift and the Child’s beatific, but childlike acceptance of it, Cambiaso achieved a degree of solemnity in this very religious work, while avoiding the detachment that is the usual price of monumentality in such narratives. Equally, by placing the largest figures against the picture plane, and by defining the special registers partly through using a variety of red tones, he constructed his composition around a sort of campfire glow that illuminates the warm flesh tones of the Child and the Virgin’s face, her rose-coloured dress, and the rich red hues of the (background) magus’s robes. Cambiaso reserved his cool tones primarily for the rich blues of the Virgin’s mantle and the background drapery, both of which serve to frame and enhance the peachy-gold skin of the Child. This focused luminosity is also a product of Cambiaso’s placement of the primary light source at the upper left, which rakes down successively to fully irradiate the Child, largely on the head, hands, and dress, of the Virgin, and only partially on the bald pates and draperies of Joseph, the Magus and his fellow Magi. This effect was echoed repeatedly in the next century by Assereto and several of his contemporaries.

Large-scale mannerist figures rendered in broad, painterly brushstrokes are most often seen in Cambiaso’s fresco work. However, a useful comparison can be made with two vertical panel paintings by Cambiaso, also dated to 1550: the Mother and Child with the Baptist, recently on the Paris art market; and the Adoration of the Magi, with Galleria Sabauda, Turin. All three panels share a similar feline cast to the eyes, channelled treatment of the drapery folds, and a subtle dynamism suggested by the slight twisting of key figures. Contrast these panels with the more opulently dressed and smaller scaled figures in Cambiaso’s 1558 altarpiece of the same subject, in SS. Annunziata, Pontremoli, which was executed under the influence of his partner, G.B.Castello called Il Bergamasco, and the distinctive quality of Cambiaso’s earlier panel style become more apparent. Perhaps in some ways, the style of the figures of this panel might strongly derive from the figure style of Perino del Vaga, and in some respects from northern artists active in Genoa around 1550.

Luca Cambiaso is considered to be the first Genoese artistic personality to have had a truly individual style. He studied with his father, Giovanni (1495-1579), who taught him to paint and in the late 1540s and 1550s they worked together frescoing the vaults in some of the newly built palaces and churches in Genoa. Their monumental style, characterised by muscular mannerist figures, derived in part from the popularity of Perino’s frescoes in the Palazzo Doria in Genoa. There, Cambiaso would also have seen frescoes by Beccafumi and Pordenone, which are no longer extant. It is thought that Luca travelled to Rome to study Raphael and Michelangelo and that he may have also visited Bologna where he would have absorbed the influence of Pellegrino Tibaldi. His partnerships with G. B. Castello called Il Bergamasco (1525-1569), who arrived in Genoa in the 1540s, tempered the angularity of Cambiaso’s figures, and their frescoes, along with those by the Corte and Calvi families made the city so magnificent that it gained the nickname of la superba.

Bertina Suida Manning divided Cambiaso’s paintings into three periods: the early gigantic ‘Michelangelesque’ figure style apparent in Palazzo Spinola; a sweeter more picturesque style influenced by Correggio, Il Bergamasco and the Venetian Cesare Corte who, settling in Genoa, had brought Venetian works with him; and a late style from the 1570s which she diplomatically called ‘serene’ where the colouring is more attenuated, while the composition is simplified.

At the end of his career, Cambiaso became court painter to Philip II in 1538 and his work at the Escorial continued the tradition set out by Bergamasco, who went there in 1567. His paintings were so admired that they figured in the collections of Rudolf II, Charles I of England, Cristina of Sweden and the Duc d’ Orleans. His ideology was considerably prolonged by three of his students, Tavarone, Bernardo Castello and Paggi, who were prolific artists in the 17th century.

35 x 46 1/8 in 89 x 117.2 cm
Oil on panel

Private Collection, Belgium


Luca Cambiaso, 1527-1585, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin,

15 September -14 January 2007;

Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 3 March – 8 July 2007, cat. no. 12, pp. 234-5, illus. colour pl.

Where is It?
Matthiesen Gallery
Historical Period
Mannerism & Cinquecento - 1530-1600
Religious: New Testament
Italian - Genoese
Price band
Price on application