PROPERTY OF THE BERGER COLLECTION EDUCATIONAL TRUST, SOLD TO BENEFIT FUTURE PHILANTHROPY
The portrait depicts a young man in his mid to late teens, his torso in profile, with his head turned at a three quarters angle towards the viewer. He is dressed stylishly, wearing a maroon gonnella (tabard) over a scarlet doublet (or farsetto) which has been padded in front to give him the broad, rounded chest then fashionable. His bright red beretta matches his doublet. His image is set against a dark background, and he seems to peer through a dusky pink fictive frame, which is painted to give the appearance of a three dimensional border. The use of a dark background (as opposed to a lighter color or a landscape) is a device that Botticelli himself uses, somewhat early in his career. A dark, blackish brown can be found in two of his portraits of young men, the paintings in the National Galleries in Washington DC (inv. 1937.1.19) and in London (inv. NG626; fig. 1). Both these portraits have been dated to the first half 1480s, and it seems correct to place the present painting to about the same time, circa 1480-85.
While the earliest provenance of the painting is not known, it first reappeared in the early 20th Century when in the possession of the collector and dealer Professor Paolo Paolini in Rome. By 1913, it was with the voracious collector Marczell von Nemes, whose collection of Old Masters was internationally famous, and where it began to draw the attention of scholars. It was published that year as a rediscovered portrait by Botticelli (see Literature). For the most part, subsequent scholars connected the painting to Botticelli, attributing it to him or his close following. Bernard Berenson categorized the picture as “Attributed to Botticelli” but considered it in a broader scope of paintings he was studying with extremely strong Botticellian connections, the corpus of works he gave to an artist he christened the “Master of San Miniato” (he in fact grouped this portrait with that painter in his “lists,” see 1963 Literature).
An infrared image of the painting (fig. 2) shows the complex and varied creative process of the composition of the portrait. The actual physiognomy of the sitter is laid out in a delicate manner, and shows traces of the marks of the transfer of the design by the spolvero technique. The adolescent’s well drawn features—his nose, eyes, and his pursed lips, all show remnants of the small dots created by this method. This suggests that the artist used a drawing from life to transfer the likeness of the youth onto the panel. The rest of the composition is rendered free hand, and with a vigorous touch. The tunic and sleeve of the sitter is drawn in with a carbon material, and certain outlines (for example, along the neckline of the garment) are enhanced with a more liquid medium to strengthen the contours. The profile of the cap and the sitter’s hairline are all suggested, and vary from the final composition. There are even some loose diagonal hatching marks on the back of the sleeve to suggest shadow. Most interestingly, however, is the artist’s original intention of including the sitter’s left hand at the lower left edge of the composition. The knuckles of the hand are clearly visible under infrared, and the hand would have been positioned, cropped, close to the front of the picture plane, to create a more dramatic sense of space, particularly when viewed next to the portrait’s framing element. This same positioning of the top of the hand was used by Botticelli in his Portrait of a Man, (circa 1478) formerly in the Museo Civico Gaetano Filangieri, Naples (since destroyed).
All of this suggests a close association of the creator of this painting to Botticelli. The painting may represent collaboration, with the free and beautiful under-drawing suggesting a master’s hand, as do the compositional changes. A number of artists worked with Botticelli at about this time, including the young Filippino Lippi, whose early style is somewhat close to this work. What is clear is that this painting was created in the close ambient of Botticelli, very probably in his workshop and under his supervision, and perhaps in some way with his participation.
We are grateful to Simon Goodman for his kind assistance in compiling the provenance of this lot.
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