As Seen on ‘The Sopranos’: A Renaissance Masterpiece Tucked Behind a Headboard

Nothing but the finest Italian masterworks for the mobster's family.

James Gandolfini and Edie Falco in The Sopranos (1999–2007). Photo: HBO.

If you ever watched The Sopranos, in which a member of the New Jersey mafia agrees to see a therapist, you may have noticed the classical painting hanging behind the king-sized bed of Tony and Carmela Soprano (played by James Gandolfini and Edie Falco). It’s called The Visitation, painted by the Renaissance artist Jacopo da Pontormo between 1528 and 1530.

Partially obscured by Soprano’s headboard, The Visitation shows the Virgin Mary visiting her cousin Saint Elizabeth, the canonical mother of John the Baptist. The pregnant women are accompanied by two maids, with two unidentified figures—possibly saints Joseph and Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband—watching from a distance. The nearly seven-foot-tall panel stuns by way of Pontormo’s gracefully rendered gowns and vibrant color pallet of pinks, greens, and blues.

James Gandolfini and Edie Falco in The Sopranos (1999–2007). Photo: Screen grab.

As indicated by its darkened varnish, the painting appeared in The Sopranos before its 2018 restoration. In addition to cleaning, infrared reflectography scans revealed the progression of Pontormo’s brushwork. Peeking under the top layer of paint, curator of the 2019 “Miraculous Encounters” traveling exhibition Davide Gasparatto found the underpainting to be “typical” of the Florentine tradition to which Pontormo belonged—a tradition where, unlike Venetian painting, “you would never see such a precise drawing on a panel’s surface.” Pontormo’s sketch was quick and gestural, with frequent adjustments to elements such as the orientation of one of the women’s feet.

Jacopo da Pontormo, The Visitation (1528–30). Photo courtesy of the parish of San Michele Arcangelo, Carmignano.

But what has Pontormo’s canvas to do with a mafioso? For one, both share an Italian lineage, one that Tony is ostensibly proud of. At one point, he tells his therapist, Dr. Melfi, of Italian immigrants: “We wanted to stay Italian and preserve the things that meant something to us: honor and family and loyalty… We weren’t educated like the Americans, but we had the balls to take what we wanted!”

But the Soprano family falls short of the high-minded values of Pontormo’s work. Tony’s is a life of crime, one that Carmela overlooks for all the material luxuries it affords her. She claims to be a devout Catholic (she calls Tony her “cross to bear”), a belief made plain by the painting behind the couple’s bed. But as her husband points out to her, “You’re only religious when it suits you.”

Francesco Morone, Samson and Delilah (ca. 16th century). Photo: Public domain.

The Visitation joins a host of other artworks and artifacts that the Sopranos have repurposed for their home. A replica of Francesco Morone’s Samson and Delilah (ca. 16th century) hangs on another wall of the couple’s bedroom—another Italian Renaissance masterwork depicting Biblical figures, who likely mirror Tony’s marriage (or even, his relationship with Melfi). Elsewhere, a hollowed-out faux Roman column that doubles as a hiding place for Tony’s ammo.

After its outing at the Getty—the first time it traveled outside Italy—Pontormo’s masterpiece now resides at the Parish Church of San Michele e San Francesco in Carmignano.

As Seen On explores the paintings and sculptures that have made it to the big and small screens—from a Bond villain’s heisted canvas to the Sopranos’ taste for Renaissance artworks. More than just set decor, these visual works play pivotal roles in on-screen narratives, when not stealing the show.

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