Federico Barocci (1526-1612, Italian) also known as Federico Fiori (his real name) or II Baroccio,was born in Urbino, Italy and became a Renaissance painter and print maker. After his apprenticeship under his father, a sculptor, Barocci moved to Rome in 1548 and worked in the Mannerist studio of Taddeo and Federico Zuccari. Pope Pius IV requested that he assist in the decoration of the Vatican Belvedere Palace in Rome. There he painted the Virgin Mary and infant, with several saints as well as a ceiling fresco of the Annunciation. However, he left Rome in 1563 because of illness only to return many years later. For the rest of his life his commissions came primarily from the Duke of Urbino. He pioneered the technique of oil sketches and over 2,000 of his sketches and drawings have survived. Barocci’s brush strokes, style and the use of emotion foreshadowed Rubens’ Baroque style while influencing many of his own contemporaries.
Many painters of the era used cats as demonic symbols or representations of lust and or laziness. However, Barocci seems to have liked cats and equated them to the Virgin Mary in that it was said that at the time of Christ’s birth a cat had also given birth to kittens; Barocci uses the cat as a symbol of fertility and motherhood.
In Barocci’s painting of the Holy Family or also titled Madonna del la gatto John the Baptist holds a goldfinch, a symbol of Christ’s passion, teasing the cat below. The Virgin Mary suckles Jesus as St. Joseph bends forward to watch. The scene is perhaps a foreshadowing of the unjust death of John the Baptist before that of Jesus.
In paintings of the Annunciation Barocci adds a cat in the foreground or in the basket at the center of the composition next to Christ, again as a symbol of motherhood.