Striking for its large number of figures (nine) and ambitious architecture, the monumental Virgin and Child is Sandro Botticelli’s largest surviving tondo. Little is known of this important work prior to its first mention in the 1693 Borghese inventory, where it is attributed to (Domenico) Ghirlandaio. Arguably a Florentine commission given the presence of the city’s patron saint John the Baptist and the circular format, notably popular in quattrocento Florence, the painting was prominently displayed in the Roman villa of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), where it has remained. The high hand position, however, did not facilitate a full appreciation from modern scholars of the panel’s pictorial quality, which stylistically falls between the Trebbio altarpiece (1495-1496; Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence) and the largely autograph Madonna and Child with Saint John (ca. 1505; Palazzo Pitti, Florence). Indeed, what have been called extensive interventions by Botticelli’s workshop can be reconsidered or seen as more limited in light of a close examination of the painting and its underdrawing, which reveal a high quality of execution and a more direct participation of the master in both the design conception and painting process. Botticelli arguably played a central role in orchestrating the design of the complex architecture that hosts the Virgin and choir of angels, and in the scene’s sophisticated symbolism. His participation is visible mostly on the Virgin and child and the singing angels at right, which are notable for their elegiac beauty and polished execution. The composition was replicated in a simplified and reduced format on a tondo that features only the Virgin and child and Saint John.
A heavily damaged workshop drawing records an idea for the central group of the Virgin and child that was repurposed on the Borghese tondo. Possibly recording a lost design by Botticelli intended for a work depicting the flight into Egypt, this drawing shows the Virgin seated nearly upright on a branch, a position she also assumes in the painting. This pose is clearer on a larger (and later) copy of the drawing, and it better illustrates the position of the embracing mother and child, to be reprised more faithfully in a tondo now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. While the repurposing, quoting, and assembling of designs conceived in different times was typical of Botticelli’s workshop practice from the early 1480s, the result is rarely as harmonious and original as it is in the painting shown here. Particular emphasis was put into the representation of flowers and their meanings: the crown of purple-blue cornflowers (symbolic of Christ and heaven) worn on the wrist by the third angel at right, the white lilies and crowns of jasmine worn by the angel (symbolic of the Virgin, as they bloom in May), and especially the white and pink roses in three long candelabras in the background. This detail sparked appreciation of the painting in the nineteenth century, as recorded by Italian symbolist author Gabriele D’Annunzio in his provocative first novel, Il Piacere (Pleasure, 1890), which begins with an invocation to the sensuous shape of Botticelli’s rose receptacles:
The rooms were slowly filling with the scent emanating from fresh flowers in vases. Thick, wide roses were immersed in certain crystal goblets that rose, slender from a sort of golden stem, widening into the shape of a diamond lily, similar to those that appear behind the Virgin in the tondo by Sandro Botticelli at the Galleria Borghese. No other form of goblet equals the elegance of such a form: the flowers in that diaphanous prison seem almost to become spiritual, resembling rather a religious or loving offering.
From Botticelli Drawings by Furio Rinaldi. Published in association with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Reproduced with permission.
Furio Rinaldi is curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.