Botticelli Backstory: Exploring A Picture’s Provenance

On these virtual pages I often share news and views with you about art, from exhibitions and sales to new discoveries and concepts. Yet even though I sometimes touch on aspects of a work’s provenance, i.e., the ownership history of a piece, it’s an area that I’d like to explore at greater length. So, I’m interested in learning whether you’d be interesting in coming along for the ride.

Let’s take a look, for example, at the “Portrait of Michele Marullo” (c. 1496), a painting by the great Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (c. 1450-1510), that will be going on display at the Frieze Art Fair in London this weekend:


Marullo (c. 1458-1500), also known as “Marullus”, was a prominent poet and mercenary soldier, whose parents had fled Constantinople when it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. His family subsequently lived a rather peripatetic existence, moving further and further away from the growing Ottoman Empire until arriving in what is now Italy. He eventually came to Florence to work for the Medici sometime before 1494, and was celebrated both for his poetry and his military prowess.

Most of the press reporting on this story will be focused on the rather breathless marketing around the picture, which is being described as “The Last Botticelli in Private Hands”: a phrase very reminiscent of the publicity campaign before the sale of the Leonardo “Salvator Mundi” two years ago. Of course, while the portrait is probably the last known, undisputed Botticelli in private hands, that doesn’t mean it’s *actually* the last Botticelli in private hands. Adding that clarifier would lead to a more accurate description, even though it would be a dud as far as marketing is concerned.

Subscribers and followers may recall that back in July, we looked at how a buyer’s perception that a work of art is by a major Old Master painter can have a significant impact on the sale price of that piece, even when the seller makes no such claim. The case study involved a portrait of a young man being offered for sale in Zurich, which the auction house described as being “in the style of” Botticelli, but which it never attributed directly to the artist himself or indirectly to members of his workshop. We also did some comparing and contrasting on the question of whether the portrait might not be by Botticelli’s pupil Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). Whoever painted it, despite the lack of attribution several potential buyers got into a bidding war over the piece, which carried a pre-sale estimate of $5,000, so that it ended up selling for about $6.4 million.

So now, let’s consider the painting that will be for sale in London. Experts generally agree that the portrait is entirely or mostly by Botticelli himself, is in good condition, and its subject is a prominent figure of the time well-known to 15th century scholars. The piece also has a reasonably good provenance for a Renaissance painting that was not in a royal collection, including ownership by the son of the Empress Josephine, cleaning and conservation carried out by the chief restorer at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg over a century ago, and more recently a long period of public exhibition at the Prado in Madrid. The picture is presently the property of the Cambó family in Spain, who have owned it since it was acquired at auction in Paris back in 1920 by the prominent Catalan businessman, party leader, and former government minister Francesc Cambó i Batlle (1876-1947).

Curiously however, the press release on this picture isn’t entirely clear on an interesting aspect of the painting’s more recent provenance. The release notes that Cambó was “[a]n exile after 1936 and the rise of Franco,” and ties Cambó’s exile to his love of the painting, since the subject of the portrait had been an exile himself. While that’s quite a romantic image for the purpose of marketing this piece, there’s actually a bit more nuance to the story than that.

Like many conservative Catalans at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Cambó took the view that, although General Franco and the Nationalists were bad news, the Republicans were far worse: “los otros son peores”, he later wrote in his journal, explaining his thought process when he chose sides, a phrase which since then has become indelibly associated with his views and indeed the views of many others on both sides of the conflict. His self-imposed exile, which actually first began in 1931 with the downfall of the Spanish monarchy and the proclamation of the Second Republic, only became permanent after 1936 once war broke out, but even then he quietly gave money to support non-bellicose aspects of the Nationalist cause.

In the end, we can say that the story of the painting’s provenance is accurate. However, if someone were to read it with only a basic knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, they might conclude that the previous owner supported the Republican, rather than the Nationalist side in the conflict. The truth, as it turns out, is something more along the lines of, “I’m sick of all y’all.”

This is just one example of the interesting information that often emerges from a more in-depth examination of provenance, when it comes to art objects. So, gentle reader, if you find these stories interesting as well, perhaps you’ll be so good as to leave some comments, regarding particular works of art whose backstories you’d be interesting in reading more about? The how and why of how these pieces came to be where they are often involves tales that, for the most part, go untold, because we focus on the appearance, subject, or value of a work of art, rather than its history as an object that has been bought and sold, stolen or recovered, over long periods of time. Oftentimes, the histories connected with these objects can be just as interesting as the aesthetic or material aspects of the objects themselves.


4 Comments on “Botticelli Backstory: Exploring A Picture’s Provenance

  1. Sorry William, very good writing and subject selection, but when you got to Cambo and Franco, I think more depth is required. Both of the subject and of your suppositions. I for one am quite excited about delving into providence (including I hope, some of your own pieces), but I think more details will be required, leading to longer blog entries. I get the catch 22 of such a course. I will hang in there with you if you choose the longer article!


  2. I think that there is a wide interest in art provenance and art mysteries. Just thinking about the subject brought back memories of reading Thomas Hoving’s King of the Confessors, and Peter Watson’s Caravaggio Conspiracy. I think I’ll go fill up my Amazon shopping cart with similar titles.


  3. Now I want the provenance listed with every artwork I see. I suspect some would be more interesting than the clichéd artist’s statements I’ve had to decipher.


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