A new restoration of Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (1470-5) by Sandro Botticelli has redeemed the reputation of a much later artist, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Lucille Ball hue of Smeralda’s hair was long thought to be an alteration done by Rossetti after he bought the painting in 1867. Experts at the V&A conserving the work for next year’s
Botticelli Reimagined exhibition have discovered that the flaming red hair is original.
It was Rossetti’s own words which placed him under scrutiny. In a letter dated three days after he bought the painting, Rossetti told his secretary “I have been restoring the headdress, but don’t mean to tell.” The hair was thought to have suffered the brunt of Rossetti’s sneaky intervention, but when V&A conservators removed the top layer of discolored varnish, they saw that there were fewer layers of paint than they expected to find. Analysis of the paint confirmed it was tempera and that the red pigment of the hair was applied by Botticelli’s hand. The only areas Rossetti appears to have retouched were some areas of the face and the cap.
Infrared reflectography revealed interesting details about Botticelli’s process. He drew incised lines on architectural features like the pillars, window framing and door which add depth and precision and help ensure the perspective looks accurate. For Smeralda’s garment, Botticelli first used liquid sketching to rough out the clothing before covering it in a wash of paint with high carbon content to enhance the shading.
When Rossetti acquired the painting from a Christie’s auction, Botticelli’s genius wasn’t as widely recognized as it had been during his lifetime. The 19th century saw a gradual revival of appreciation for the Renaissance master, and the pre-Raphaelites played an important role in the reevaluation of Botticelli’s significance. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Ruskin and Edward Burne-Jones collected Botticelli paintings and drawings, which goes to show how different the market was for his work back then. Rossetti paid £20 for Smeralda Bandinelli (plus £4 to have it professionally cleaned). When he sold it to collector Constantine Alexander Ionides just 15 years later, the sale price had leapt to £315. It hasn’t been sold since and isn’t likely to be ever again — Ionides included it in his bequest of 82 paintings to the V&A in 1901 — but Botticelli’s Rockefeller Madonna set a record for the artist when it sold at auction for $10,442,500 in 2013.
The upcoming exhibition looks at Botticelli’s work, how it was seen in his time and how, after three long centuries of obscurity, it came back to prominence through the work of artists influenced by him. There are more than 50 original works by Botticelli in the exhibition. Pre-Raphaelite reimaginings of Botticelli like Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata and Burne-Jones’ The Mill: Girls Dancing to Music by a River will be on display alongside works by Botticelli-inspired artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte, and designer Elsa Schiaparelli.
It’s a joint exhibition with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin which has eight paintings and 86 drawings by the Renaissance master in its permanent collection. The show opens in Berlin on September 24th of this year and closes on January 24th. It opens at the V&A on March 5th, 2016.