Exhibition Archive

The Botti Madonna

13 November 2001 to 24 March 2003


Botti Madonna with frame

The Botti Madonna, a masterpiece recently authenticated as a lost work by Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530), goes on view today in the Courtauld Institute Gallery. The potential importance of this remarkable and beautiful rediscovery was recognised 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.

The Botti Madonna was a gift from either the Medici or the Vatican to Queen Henrietta Maria, the Catholic wife of King Charles I, who displayed it at her palace of Somerset House. The frame still bears a contemporary label which reads "So:Ho:", a 17th century abbreviation for Somerset House, indicating that it hung there. Thanks to the generosity of its current private owner, who has loaned the painting to the Courtauld, 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 which emphasises 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 known owner the Marchese Botti (c.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 Città 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 modelling for which this singular artist is superior to all others."

There are three distinct phases of documented history for the painting set in 16th and 17th century Italy, 17th century England and 20th century America and while the record is interrupted between each period, nevertheless Dr Arthur MacGregor of the Ashmolean Museum says in his catalogue essay that "the chain of indirect evidence linking one with another is highly compelling".

Another label in a 17th century hand, pasted to the back of the panel, indicates the earliest recorded provenance for the painting: Madonna con banbino 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.

The Botti Madonna’s home of Somerset House subsequently became the setting of the Commonwealth sale of the late King’s goods when, in the aftermath of Charles’ execution, his magnificence art collection was dispersed. The Botti Madonna is easily identifiable in the 1649 inventory of the sale as Mary and ye childdone by Andrea del Sarto, valued at £40. A later note inserted in the same inventory records that on 3 December 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 (d.1965). He inherited it from his parents, both of whom came from families that traced their origins back to 17th century New England, where it is known 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 catalogue 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 which he undertook so successfully, Dr Arthur MacGregor writes of the known provenance and Adriana Turpin gives a full description of the magnificent 17th 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.

At the end of the painstaking process of conservation Stephen Gritt says of this exceptional painting: "The eventual effect, even after five centuries and evident adventures, is a fresh and moving depiction of intimacy that gains emotional impact with its frank and masterly handling of paint." Both scholars and members of the general public will undoubtedly enjoy the rare experience of seeing a rediscovered masterpiece displayed as Professor Fernie observes "…by itself, as it deserves, accompanied only by text panels and the catalogue".

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When the Botti Madonna catalogue was going to print in November 2001, the publishers were unfortunately unaware of preparations taking place for another exhibition which was to be held at the Museo del Prado in Madrid from March to June 2002: The Sale of the Century. Artistic Relations between Spain and Great Britain, 1604-1655. Research published in the related exhibition catalogue, edited by Professor Jonathan Brown and Sir John Elliott, revealed the astonishing fact that, rather than going directly from England to North America in c. 1651, as postulated in the Botti Madonna catalogue, the painting made a detour in Spain. This new information was published in June 2002 in an appendix to the Botti Madonna catalogue with an article by Jonathan Brown. In it he describes how the painting appears in a memorandum dated 1651-52 of 44 works of art acquired during the time of the Commonwealth Sale of the late King Charles I’s goods by the painter David Teniers the Younger on behalf of the Count of Fuensaldana, a minister in the Spanish Netherlands. Teniers arranged for Alonso de Cardenas, the Spanish ambassador in London, to ship the paintings to Madrid. The recipient of the consignment was Luis de Haro, Marques del Carpio, who was principal minister to Philip IV of Spain and a renowned collector of art. An annotation in the margin of the memorandum shows that the Botti Madonna was hung in the Carpio family palace in Madrid. An inventory of the Carpio collection was taken in 1687, but the Botti Madonna is conspicuous by its absence. How the painting left Spain and made its way to North America is the subject of further research.