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Slow Tuscany > Tuscany > Florence > Madonna and the Flying Saucer
The Madonna of the
"Flying Saucer"

Damiano Andreini

Madonna and the Flying Saucer
I would like to accompany you to Florence. This time it is to tell you about a painting that is neither famous nor particularly beautiful, but is very suggestive.

The painting is hanging in a little room on the top floor of the Palazzo Vecchio, where one of the most prestigious museums in all of Tuscany and of all of Italy is housed. It is circular in shape and its dimensions are approximately 1 meter in diameter. Its frame is wooden with gold inlay and it forms an elegant motif of flowers and fruit (popular in the mid 1400’s). It is attributed to a sphere of private purchasers. The figures are: the Madonna (Mary), Jesus and St. John which are inserted into a rural landscape with two shepherds, a dog and a small flock of sheep. Up until this point, there is nothing unusual about this painting. Hundreds of these types of paintings were created during the 1400’s in Florence to adorn the homes of merchants, bankers, nobles and the clergy of Tuscany. But yet, there is something strange about this painting:

What are the shepherd and his dog observing? In the sky far above them, a strange, lead-colored, oval “flying object” appears. It seems to be in movement and it has a sphere-shaped crown under it. On the top, it’s loaded with pointy projections, similar to antennas. A UFO?

At the time that the painting was created there were certainly no machines capable of flight in existence (even though it wouldn’t be long before Leonard da Vinci 1450-1519 would begin to design them!). Nonetheless, we can exclude the idea that the artist of the painting (possibly a student of Filippo Lippi) could have had an idea of what a UFO was. Actually, we can almost be certain that in those times no one could have hypothesized the existence of extra-terrestrials.

However, it seems just as impossible that the flying object could be related to the general subject of the painting. What could possibly link the sacred group of Mary, Jesus and St. John to the strange event taking place far above them? The curiosity and the gestures of the shepherd, who is placing one hand above his brow to see better, don’t seem to be consistent with a mystical and religious event. But even if it were, that is, if the mysterious object did represent a metaphor of a sacred background, how is it possible that an artist of the 1400’s could have chosen to also include the curious expression of the dog?

The painting has been analyzed several times in Italy and in the U.S. It has not undergone any touch-ups or other interventions, so it is not a hoax. In 1978, an architect was the first to notice the strange flying object in the painting. Since then the UFO-ologists have adopted it as an emblem that the sightings of UFO’s did in fact take place even in past epochs while the skeptics have remained unconvinced. The first group maintains that the painter wanted to reproduce an extraordinary event that had happened to him previously or that the same painter, who some identify as Filippo Lippi, was so extravagant that he inserted capricious objects in his artwork. These theories do not hold up. First of all, because Filippo Lippi’s style is not present in this painting, possibly that of his student. But there’s also another reason- in the 1400’s all of the paintings were commissioned very precisely, and usually the purchasers were very refined and always demanding. They were the ones who indicated what was to appear in the painting to the artist. No artist would have taken it upon himself to insert an element as bizarre as a flying object into his painting.

If we really wanted to entertain ourselves with the possibilities, we would need to ask ourselves about the purchasers. Let’s imagine a rich merchant in the 1400’s who finds himself in an open field with his dog- maybe during a hunt- observing a dark flying object. The bright light of the sun is so blinding that he has to place his hand above his brow to block it out. Let’s imagine then that once he returns home with his heart in his throat, convinced of having assisted in a divine manifestation, he goes and tells the story to a great painter and asks him to create a devotional piece with Jesus, Mary and St. John (who is also the patron saint of Florence), and in which the transcendent event also appears. This way, he will not be able to forget it- like a deferred photograph.

It could have happened like this or in a thousand different other ways. Nevertheless, I believe, that the key of the enigma lies in the hand of the purchaser of the painting. Unfortunately, a silence of more than 500 centuries separates us from the truth. In the end maybe it’s better this way. Whether or not it is a UFO or a meteor, and whether or not the extra-terrestrials did or didn’t arrive in Tuscany in the 1400’s, we will certainly never know. But one thing is for certain- without that strange flying object, the painting would have never had its excellent restoration and it would probably not be displayed in a room in the prestigious museum of Palazzo Vecchio. Lastly, I would not have been able to tell you about it...

Damiano Andreini

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