BY JAMES TWOMEY
A painting which was believed to be an imitation of a famous 15th century work by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli has in fact been revealed to be one of his authentic masterpieces.
The famous painting, Madonna of the Pomegranate, by Botticelli is housed in a gallery in Florence, Italy but its impressive impersonation, which was thought to have been created later by someone else, has been on display at Ranger’s House in Greenwich for more than 20 years.
The discovery was made while the painting was being cleaned by English Heritage conservators, and the work’s true colours – hidden under more than a century of yellow varnish – were revealed.
X-ray testing, infrared studies and pigment analysis have revealed that the painting is from the very workshop in Florence where Botticelli created his masterpieces.
Rachel Turnbull, English Heritage’s senior collections conservator, said: “Being able to closely examine and conserve this painting for the first time in over 100 years has really given us the chance to get up-close and personal with the paintwork.
“I noticed instantly that the painting bore a striking resemblance to the workshop of Botticelli himself; stylistically it was too similar to be an imitation, it was of the right period, it was technically correct and it was painted on poplar, a material commonly used at the time.
“After removing the yellowing varnish, x-ray and infrared examination revealed under-drawing, including changes to the final composition uncommon in straight imitations.
“After consultations with our colleagues at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery London, we are finally able to confirm that Madonna of the Pomegranate is from the Florentine workshop of master painter Sandro Botticelli.”
From his workshop in Florence, Botticelli employed a number of assistants who would execute large parts or even whole panels of his paintings to help him meet demand.
It was not unusual for popular paintings by Botticelli to be commissioned again by other patrons, but these were often reduced in size, composition or detail by the master and his workshop assistants to fit a smaller budget.
The imitation painting was bought by diamond magnate Julius Wernher in 1897, showing the Madonna and Christ Child flanked by four angels, the title refers to the pomegranate that is held by the Madonna and Child to symbolize Christ’s future suffering.
The assumption that the painting was a later imitation arose because of its variations in detail to the original and the thick yellow varnish that concealed the quality of the work.
The painting will go back on display at Ranger’s House, which is also home to an assortment of more than 700 works of fine and decorative art amassed by Julius Wernher in the late 19th century.