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Studio of Alessandro Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (Florence 1444/45-1510)
Studio of Alessandro Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (Florence 1444/45-1510)

The Madonna and Child in a niche

Studio of Alessandro Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (Florence 1444/45-1510)
The Madonna and Child in a niche
tempera, oil and gold on panel
32 x 21¾ in. (81.3 x 55.2 cm.)
with Agnew's, London.
Private colletion, Europe.
L. Bellosi, 'Il recupero di un autografo del Botticelli', Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, LIII, no. 1, 2009, pp. 154-155, fig. 10, as 'pittore botticelliano'.

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Lot Essay

This engaging composition must have been popular among Botticelli's patrons, as numerous surviving versions attest. A number of these are listed in Ronald Lightbown's catalogue raisonné of Botticelli's paintings, including, among others, a panel in the Galleria Colonna, Rome; a panel formerly the collection of Alina, Countess of Carnarvon (sold Christie's, 22 May 1922, lot 58); a canvas in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; a tondo in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris; and a tondo in the collection of Senator and Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, New York (see R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: life and work, London, 1989, no. C67). In 2009, Luciano Bellosi (loc. cit.) added the present Madonna and Child to this list, pointing out several other related compositions from Botticelli's studio, including a tondo in the Denver Museum of Fine Arts.

Bellosi has argued that a version deaccessioned in 1990 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and purchased by a private collector who subsequently had it cleaned, is the original, autograph work by Botticelli on which all the other versions were based (ibid.). While it is possible that the ex-Boston picture was painted by Botticelli, the master's studio was more complicated than Bellosi's hypothesis suggests. Current scholarship regarding Botticelli's studio practice suggests that the workshop was a collaborative environment in which the master provided designs and executed pictures on his own while also supervising his employees and intervening, when he wished, in pictures that had been delegated to them. It is likely, in fact, that a number of the known surviving versions of the present composition include some degree of intervention by the master himself.

The present picture, which was not known to Lightbown when he published his catalogue raisonné, is unique among all extant versions of the composition in its inclusion of a delicate gray niche in the background, embellished with carved cherubs. Set slightly in front of the niche, the figures seem to project into the viewer's own space, physically immediate presences whose golden haloes and improbable grace nonetheless remove them to a distant, otherworldly realm. The squirming bird in the child's hand is a goldfinch, symbol of Christ's Passion, often included in images of the Madonna and Child in Renaissance Florence.

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