Pala di Sant’Ambrogio (c.1470)

Botticelli, Sandro (c.1445-1510)

Pala di Sant’Ambrogio (Madonna and Child with Six Saints)
c.1470
Tempera on panel, 170 x 194 cm
Galleria degli UffiziFirenze

The Altarpiece of Sant’Ambrogio, depicting the Madonna with Child and Saints, painted around 1470, when the artist was just twenty-five, is significantly reworked by the artist himself, up to the more advanced stages of construction, with interventions that in some cases are still visible to the naked eye, testifying to the intense creative torment of the young master, during the realization of his first important commission.

The panel had been in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure since 2018 where, before the restoration, it was subjected to an extensive diagnostic campaign curated by Roberto Bellucci, in which, in addition to the OPD scientific laboratory, CNR INO, INFN collaborated – section of Florence, the Department of Mechanical, Chemical and Materials Engineering, and the Department of Physics of the University of Cagliari.

“The most important result obtained from this analysis campaign, as it always should be on the occasion of restorations, was the expansion of knowledge on Botticelli‘s modus operandi, which must now be adequately reconnected to other works by the same artist”,  comments the Superintendent of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure Marco Ciatti.

From the comparison between the images obtained from the reflectographic investigations, the x-rays and the final draft, a surprising number of substantial rethinkings emerged, both in the planning phase of the drawing and in the pictorial drafting, a fact which was very unusual for the period. For example, it was possible to see how Botticelli had canceled 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 that’s not all: the Child, in the arms of the Madonna, during the pictorial process, has drastically changed position, as is visible, thanks to the identification in the reflectography, of the first setting of the eyes, placed in a different and rotated position with respect to the definitive one, and a leg that changes posture. Saint Cosmas, one of the saints depicted, originally looked upwards, as is evident from the movement of the eye, originally oriented differently. With a further rethink, Botticelli subsequently decided to give this character another type of attitude and therefore, in the completed version, Saint Cosmas, instead of facing the Virgin, keeps his head lower 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 completely mask: they are the ones that are visible today even to the naked eye. It is again Saint Cosmas who does not convince the doubtful Botticelli. His dress, in the previous version, placed him moved backwards, to the left, and the aura of his different placement, not completely erased, is still visible today to the attentive observer. Even more macroscopic are the interventions on Saint Catherine of Alexandria, depicted standing on the extreme right of the altarpiece: in this case Botticelli literally erases an inch of her (making it disappear under an edge of the mantle), but, as for the dress of San Cosma, the trace of the finger is still perceptible today. The same happens for the tip of the little finger of the same hand, which the Florentine painter decided to make smaller once the painting was almost finished.

Finally, the undoubtedly 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 his robe. Why are they there? There are no certain answers at the moment, but one of the hypotheses is that Botticelli had initially imagined her saint in a kneeling position, but reconsidered almost immediately and decided to represent her standing. The eyes could therefore be the legacy of this initial approach. To demonstrate this, there is also the perfect overlap between the shape of the eyes under the robe and that of the saint’s eyes in the final version, concretely verified on the work by the Opificio specialists themselves.

According to the art historian of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Cecilia Frosinini “It is probable that this unusual characteristic methodology of Botticelli, marked by a continuous rethinking in the genesis of the work, derives from his apprenticeship in the workshop of Filippo Lippi, who already before him he manifested this tendency, absolutely unusual for the artists of the time. And it is also important to observe how some of the new details that emerged from the investigations relating to the construction of the Sant’Ambrogio Altarpiece could offer elements for an overall re-examination of the commissioning of the work”.

And Director Schmidt comments: “After the revelations that emerged with the spectacular restoration of Leonardo‘s Adoration of the Magi and with the investigations into the artist’s drawing 8P, after the discoveries made on Artemisia Gentileschi‘s Saint Catherine, and much more, the Opificio delle Pietre dure offers us another example of the very high levels reached by scientific research on works of art. Even the most famous ones, about which everything seems to be known by now, can offer us previously unsuspected information, even on artists such as Botticelli who have been studied for centuries. This must teach us that a good restoration must also be an opportunity for research and not aim only for spectacular effects. For this I am grateful to the Amici degli Uffizi and the Friends of the Uffizi Galleries, who always generously support us in our commitment to the protection and better knowledge of our heritage”.

The altarpiece, which returns to the Sala della Primavera at the Uffizi, had been in the OPD headquarters for a few months. It had problems with the wooden support and in three areas the color was raised and partially damaged. The intervention, financially supported by the Amici degli Uffizi, and carried out for the pictorial part by Luisa Gusmeroli and Patrizia Riitano, and for the wooden part by Ciro Castelli and Andrea Santacesaria, solved the problems of tension of the support and remedied the chromatic alterations .

The President of the Amici degli Uffizi and of the Friends of the Uffizi Galleries, Maria Vittoria Rimbotti, thanks the donor who generously supported the restoration operation: “We owe the support of this important restoration to the generosity of our friend Joseph Raskauskas, a member of the Friends of the American Uffizi Galleries that we founded in 2006. And it is always a great pleasure for us to see the passion with which the Friends are committed to protecting the masterpieces of culture, thus recognizing our common roots”. (Uffizi)