Newsletter Archive: Spring 2003
Botticelli: Investigating a Painters Practice
Courtauld Institute and National Gallery co-hosted this stimulating
two-day conference, drawing together conservators, curators and art historians
to discuss the paintings and workshop practices of one of the most outstanding
artists of the Italian Renaissance. Organised by Patricia Rubin, the
conference was fortunate to have an international cast of experts from
universities and museums in Italy, Holland, Britain, Canada and the United
States. The academic presentations were complemented by visits to the
National Gallery and the Courtauld collection, enabling participants
to gain an in-depth look at several paintings by Botticelli and his workshop
examined during talks. The gallery viewings also promoted enthusiastic
exchanges between colleagues, bringing the conferences complex
themes of authorship, painting style, and workshop production to life.
Like other Renaissance masters, Botticelli was both creative artist and manager of a business. Joanna Cannons, Courtauld Institute, excellent opening talk addressed the interaction between artistic invention and material production, delineating the many forms by which artists collaborated and involved assistants in making works of art. Several presenters then reported on recent scientific analysis and examination of Botticellis paintings, furthering our understanding of the drawing and painting techniques he and his workshop employed. Cristina Acidini, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, highlighted the great technical skill and meticulous care found in Botticellis famous mature works like the Primavera, while also suggesting that although Botticelli may have begun certain paintings, he left passages like foliage, draperies, and secondary figures to be completed by assistants. Other speakers focused on differences in technique found within many of Botticellis works: differences in types of under-drawings, paint application, and paint medium, while again asking questions about collaboration and studio involvement.
The findings from the scientific analyses of Botticellis works brought new discoveries and led speakers to consider fresh approaches to the problems of attribution; indeed, even in the case of the Courtaulds Trinity. Caroline Villers, Courtauld Institute, presented conservation results from Rachel Norths, formerly Courtauld Institute, exemplary study, that revealed repeated changes and revisions to the under-drawings and paint layers to establish visual effects. Rachel had previously interpreted the results as showing a single, controlling mind at work despite the presence of different 'hands in the painting. Carolines review of the material in preparation for the conference prompted her to reconsider this conclusion. Moreover, Carl Strehlke and Mark Tucker, Philadelphia Museum of Art, reported on the restoration of the predella panel for the Courtaulds Trinity, offering the exciting finding that the predella may be missing a central panel while questioning the attribution of Botticelli in light of their technical results. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard University Art Museums, presented a fascinating study of two nearly identical canvases of the Virgin and Child set against Northern European backgrounds-an atypical setting for Botticelli. Stephan queried whether a second artist had collaborated with Botticelli to produce the original design, and he believed that a different painter capable of reproducing the Botticellian style made the second version.
Many speakers cautioned that technical examinations cannot conclusively determine authorship, yet can, nevertheless, reveal the ways in which Renaissance artists fulfilled their ambitions to deliver a consistent product in terms of design and quality of execution.
As aptly summarised by Larry Kanters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
closing talk, Botticellis consistency was not of the usual variety: he re-used motifs in a playful way and many of his repetitions of successful Madonna and Child compositions reveal subtle changes and innovative re-working of earlier pictorial ideas. Despite Botticellis artistic successes, new documentary evidence presented by Alessandro Cecchi, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, confirmed an influential Renaissance anecdote that the artist died in abject poverty. This invigorating conference was testimony that much remains to be learned about Botticelli and the Botticellean ouevre.
STEPHEN BUTLER — PhD Candidate,Courtauld Institute of Art