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.
Ferruzzi 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
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.
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.
His 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.
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 life.
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.
her 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?
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.
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
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
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.
documents 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.
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.
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 resist?
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.”
entered 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
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.
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.”
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.
Courtesy of Sister Angela Marie Bovo
This famous painting became more meaningful to
Sister Angela Marie Bovo after she discovered that the subjects were
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