Published: January 15, 2002
LONDON – The Botti Madonna, a masterpiece that has been recently authenticated as a lost work by Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530), one of the greatest artists of the Florentine Renaissance, is being exhibited in Room 3 at the Courtauld Institute Gallery, Somerset House, through April 5.
The potential importance of this remarkable and beautiful rediscovery was recognized by Professor John Shearman of Harvard University, who taught at the Courtauld in the 1960s and 70s and was deputy director from 1974 to 1978. Subsequent study and its recent conservation have revealed what Professor Eric Fernie, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, describes as “a work of great quality and impact” and confirmed it as being by del Sarto.
It is likely that the Botti Madonna was a diplomatic gift from either the Medici or the Vatican to Queen Henrietta Maria, the Catholic wife of King Charles I. The frame still bears a contemporary label which reads “So:Ho:,” a Seventeenth Century abbreviation for Somerset House, the Royal Palace used by the Queen. Thanks to the generosity of its current owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, the Botti Madonna can once again be seen in all its freshness and tenderness on the site where it was some 350 years ago.
The painting depicts the Virgin three-quarter length with the Christ child in front of her seated on a cushion. She is gazing tenderly at the child, her right hand at his back and her left hand on his mouth as if checking for teeth, a gesture that emphasizes Christ’s humanity.
There are three other paintings of similar composition – one in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court, one in the Duke of Northumberland’s collection at Alnwick and the third, formerly in the Baring and Northbrook collections, is in the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Ohio. Only one related drawing is known, which is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
The painting is known as the Botti Madonna from its earliest recorded owner the Marchese Botti (circa 1570-1621), a wealthy Florentine who had a distinguished career at the court of the Medici Grand Dukes. The painting was described by Francesco Bocchi in his Le Bellezze della Citta di Firenze, 1591: “In the house of Matteo and Giovanni Battista Botti a painting of our Lady with the Child by the hand of Andrea del Sarto, done with extreme diligence, admired by connoisseurs and artists, with that softness of handling and strength of modeling for which this singular artist is superior to all others.”
There are three distinct phases of documented history for the painting set in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Italy, Seventeenth Century England and Twentieth Century America and while the record is interrupted between each period, nevertheless Dr Arthur MacGregor of the Ashmolean Museum says in his catalog essay that “the chain of indirect evidence linking one with another is highly compelling.”
Another label in a Seventeenth Century hand, pasted to the back of the panel, indicates the earliest recorded provenance for the painting: “Madonna con bambino Gesu/di Andr (e) a del Sarto, provenie/te dalla Galleria del March (ese)/…Botti…” At the end of Matteo Botti’s career, on his return to Florence in 1615 from an embassy to Spain on behalf of the Medici, he became ill and was in considerable debt. Grand Duke Cosimo II devised a settlement of Botti’s debts in return for which his entire estate, including his exceptional art collection, would be assigned to the Grand Duke. The Botti Madonna went to the Palazzo Pitti but does not appear in the Pitti inventory of 1637 and was presumably sent as a gift to England around or before this date.
Somerset House was the setting for the Commonwealth sale of the late King’s magnificent art collection that was dispersed after his execution. The Botti Madonna is identifiable in the 1649 inventory prepared for the sale as “Mary and ye child done by Andrea del Sarto,” valued at £40. A later note inserted in the same inventory records that on December 3 that year the Madonna was “Sold to Leemput” for £55. Remigius Van Leemput, a minor painter and dealer, bought many paintings and bronzes at the sale of the King’s collection and in most cases sold them on. There is no record of the Madonna’s fate after the sale but it must have left the country quite swiftly.
The next time the Botti Madonna surfaces is in North America where it formed part of the estate of Laurence W. Boothe (died 1965). He inherited it from his parents, both of whom came from families that traced their origins back to Seventeenth Century New England, where it is knows that members of a Royalist Booth(e) family settled in the early 1650s. Although there is no direct evidence that the Botti Madonna went to America with the Booths, their links to the Stuart court make it possible that the painting could have been acquired by them from Van Leemput and taken out of England at a time of intense anti-Royalist feeling under Cromwell’s protectorate.
In summary, although the history of the Botti Madonna is incomplete, it is clear that the painting now on display at Somerset House is the one that graced the collection of Charles I and was previously owned by the Medici and the Marchese Botti. It may now be removed from the list of pictures missing after the dispersal of the royal collection.
The illustrated catalog that accompanies the exhibition of the Botti Madonna contains a series of scholarly and informative essays on the history of the painting and its recent conservation. Professor John Shearman gives an assessment of the attribution of the painting, its place in del Sarto’s oeuvre and its relationship to similar paintings.
Stephen Gritt relates in detail its physical history and the sensitive conservation that he undertook so successfully, Dr Arthur MacGregor writes of the known provenance and Adriana Turpin gives a full description of the magnificent Seventeenth Century Italian frame, of great interest in its own right, and the significance of its design in the context of the decorative arts in Florence at the time.
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