The creative torments of young Botticelli

The diagnostic campaign on the Madonna with Child and Saints, first important commission of the 25 year old painter, has brought to light all the doubts and uncertainties of the artist in the realization of the work.

Florence – A large painting that has been profoundly reworked up to the most advanced stages of its production, with interventions that in some cases are still visible to the naked eye today. Characters that change position; an entire portion of the floor is replaced by the platform on which the throne of the Virgin, the protagonist of the work, rests; fingers that disappear and even eyes that, on the contrary, appear in places where they should not be, evidently signalling changes in the positions and posture of the characters.

These are just some of the elements that show the intense creative torment of the young Sandro Botticelli, during the realization of one of his first great masterpieces (as well as his first important commission), the Altarpiece of St. Ambrose, depicting the Madonna with Child and Saints, painted around 1470, at the age of about 25 years.

The discovery was made at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, where the panel had been under restoration since 2018. Subjected to an extensive diagnostic campaign, the work has revealed a surprising number of substantial rethinks, both in the planning phase of the drawing, both in the pictorial drafting, which is very unusual for the period. Most of these changes emerged thanks to the comparison between radiography and reflective investigations: it was thus possible to see how Botticelli had, for example, literally erased a floor already structured through engravings and painted in detail, to replace the central part with a platform to raise the figure of the Virgin Mary. But not only: the Child, in the arms of the Madonna, during the pictorial process, drastically changes position, as is visible thanks to the identification in reflectography, the first setting of the eyes, placed in a different position and rotated from the final one, and a leg that changes posture. Saint Cosmas, one of the saints depicted, originally looked upwards, as is also evident in this case from the shifting of the eye, originally differently oriented, which re-emerges from the ‘bowels’ of the painting sifted once again by reflectography. With a further rethink, Botticelli later decided to give this character another type of attitude and therefore, in the final version, St. Cosmas, instead of being turned towards the Virgin, keeps his head down and looks towards the viewer.

Finally, there are changes that are so late that they were made during the completion phase of the painting, and therefore impossible to mask completely: they are those that are visible today even to the naked eye.

It was again San Cosma that did not convince the doubtful Botticelli. In the previous version, his robe placed him backwards, to the left, and the halo of his different location, not completely erased, is still visible today to the attentive observer.

Even more macroscopic are the interventions on Saint Catherine of Alexandria, depicted standing at the far right of the altarpiece: in this case Botticelli literally ‘erases’ an inch (making it disappear under a strip of the mantle), but, as with the dress of Saint Cosmas, the ‘ghost’ of the finger can still be seen today. The same, albeit in a slightly less recognizable way, happens with the tip of the little finger of the same hand, which the Florentine painter decided to ‘shorten’ when the painting was almost finished.


Finally, the most curious element: a pair of mysterious eyes, engraved on the panel, identified at half height of the figure of Saint Catherine, in the central area of her dress. Why are they there? There are no certain answers at the moment, but one of the hypotheses is that Botticelli could have initially imagined the Saint in a kneeling position, but he thought about it almost immediately and decided instead to represent her standing. The eyes could therefore be the legacy of this initial, then abandoned, setting. To demonstrate this, there is also the perfect superimposition between the pupils engraved under the dress and those painted on the face of St. Catherine in the final version, verified concretely on the work by the same specialists of the Opificio.

The altarpiece, which in the next few days will be permanently displayed in the Spring Room at the Uffizi, had been in the headquarters of the restoration agency for several months. It had problems with the wooden support and three areas where the colour was raised and partially damaged. The intervention, financially supported also by the Friends of the Uffizi, solved the problems of tension of the support and remedied the chromatic alterations.

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