My old friend Johnny, a brilliant autodidact, had an interesting theory about Renaissance art which we discussed over way too many drinks in the bars at the Danieli and the Gritti, at Caffe Florian, and assorted enotecas around Venice one long-ago weekend in 1993.
The theory went roughly like this. The greatness of the artist could be indexed to the beauty of the babies in the Madonna's arms. There are more beautiful Madonnas than truly beautiful babies; the baby was the acid test. Without fail, the greatest artists, Rafaello, Lippi, Bellini, painted the most beautiful babies. In other paintings there were admirable qualities, but the babies were unappealing, unconvincing, and certainly not truly beautiful. They were truly beautiful only when painted by the few, the best.
The other day I stopped by the Mestrovich Collection, scarecely more than a score paintings, each one outstanding, in the "Browning Mezzaine" of Ca' Rezzonico, the Museum of the 18th Century. It was here that I happened upon the "Sacra Conversazione" of Bonifacio De' Pitati (Verona, 1487 - Venezia, 1553).
I would never argue that De' Pitati is the greatest of artists, although he exists in rarified company. But he painted what is arguably one of the most beautiful babies anywhere.