Colnaghi Foundation Journal 04 - Page 146

Selling Botticelli to America: Colnaghi, Bernard Berenson and the sale of the Madonna of the Eucharist to Isabella Stewart Gardner
Selling Botticelli to America: Colnaghi, Bernard Berenson and the sale of the Madonna of the Eucharist to Isabella Stewart Gardner
Pater’s Madonna is a notably agnostic figure who shows
of William Morris, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones, to
no enthusiasm for the task of praising God (“She is
“repeated doses of diluted Botticelli.”7
neither for Jehovah nor for his enemies”) and, in in this
famously limp-wristed passage, Pater could almost be
Until the 1840s Botticelli had been largely forgotten,
describing one of Rossetti’s doomed heroines, such as
but his star rose rapidly in the second half of the
the Proserpine (fig. 8), who like the Virgin also holds a
century, and by 1881 he had become so popular in
pomegranate, symbol of the passion, and wears a look
England that W.S. Gilbert made the aesthetic hero
of dreamy melancholy. The links are not coincidental
of his comic opera Patience wander around Piccadilly
because, in fact, Rossetti was a pioneering collector
with a lily in his medieval hand, murmuring “how
of Botticelli’s work, owner of the Portrait of Smeralda
Botticellian”(fig. 9). The artist’s fame had also spread
Bandinelli (London, Victoria and Albert Museum), the
to Boston, largely thanks to the inspirational lectures
subject of which he believed had been the model for
of Charles Eliot Norton (fig.10). One of Mrs Gardner’s
the central figure of Venus in the Primavera. There were
earliest interests as a collector, in which she had been
also English collectors, such as Alexander Constantine
encouraged by Norton, was in early editions of Dante,
Ionides, who were simultaneously collectors of Botticelli
whose Divine Comedy Botticelli had illustrated. There
and important patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites.
were other links too: Rossetti, whose paintings Mrs
Gardner collected, had been, as observed, a pioneering
Each age takes from the past what suits its own
collector of Botticelli in the 1860s. Berenson, who
preconceptions and, between the 1840s and the 1870s,
in the early days of courtship, led Mary Costelloe
there had been a significant shift in attitudes towards
blindfolded through the Uffizi “to the spot in the
the Florentine Quattrocento. During the religious
adjoining room where she could best see for the
revival of the 1840s, the paintings of the saintly Fra
first time the Primavera,”8 was also a great admirer of
Angelico provided writers like Lord Lindsay and
artists like the young Rossetti with opportunities to, in
Lord Lindsay’s words, “commune with the relics of a
simpler and more believing age.” Botticelli’s paintings,
on the other hand, appeared to offer, in addition to
their remarkable beauty, something more complex and
ambiguous which appealed to fin-de-siècle aesthetes, to
artists like Rossetti and Burne-Jones, and to writers
such as Swinburne and Isabella Stewart Gardner’s
friend Henry James, who in 1873, had likened the
“haunted or overcharged consciousness” in the work
Botticelli. He considered the master’s work to combine
Fig. 8 / Dante Gabriel
Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874,
oil on canvas, 125.1 cm × 61
cm, London, Tate Britain.
Fig.9 / Henry Matthew
Brock, poster for W.S.
Gilbert’s Patience.
Fig. 10 / J.E. Purdy &
Co.Boston (Mass.),
photograph of Charles
Eliot Norton, 1903, Boston,
Houghton Library, Harvard
two fundamental “life-enhancing” qualities: movement
and what Berenson famously called “tactile values.”
Botticelli was also an artist who, like Vermeer, had
the appeal of the undiscovered. In 1865, the year of
Berenson’s birth, there were no Botticellis in America.
By 1959, the year of his death, there were more
paintings by the artist in America than in any other
country apart from Italy.9 The two Botticellis which
Colnaghi and Berenson sold to Isabella Stuart Gardner
undoubtedly played a major role in this rediscovery.


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