• Italiano

Sandro Botticelli, Sant’Ambrogio Altarpiece. Florence, Uffizi Gallery

Sandro Botticelli, Sant’Ambrogio Altarpiece
170 x 194 x 3 cm
Florence, Uffizi Gallery


Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi, known as Botticelli), the youngest son of the tanner Mariano and his wife Smeralda, was born in Florence in 1444 or 1445. After a first approach with the art of goldsmithery, due to his talent and predilection in painting he was entrusted to the teachings of Filippo Lippi, around 1461-62.

References to Lippi's painting can be found in almost all of Botticelli's artistic production, especially in his Madonnas, such as the Madonna of Humility with five Angels, Louvre Museum, Paris. He derived from Lippi the physiognomic typologies, oval faces with a spacious forehead and the use of a graphic line in the representation of the human figure, which will become a specific feature of Botticelli's painting.

Around 1470 in Florence important artists such as Pollaiolo and Verrocchio were already active, and also influenced Botticelli's artistic training.

Before the age of thirty he entered the circle of the Medici family, of whom he became the favourite artist; he worked for Giuliano de' Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, coming into contact with the cultured environment of the Neoplatonic Academy, of which La Primavera (ca. 1480) is the most direct expression. In January 1474 he was called to Pisa to collaborate in the completion of the frescoes in the Camposanto, started by Benozzo Gozzoli who was still working on them. Botticelli's artistic activity in this period is varied: from altarpieces to Madonnas, portraits and frescoes, to the production of drawings, a clear sign of his success.

In 1481 Botticelli was called to Rome to paint the Stories of Christ and Moses in the Sistine Chapel, together with many other famous artists of the period, including Pietro Perugino and Cosimo Rosselli. Botticelli painted three episodes in the Sistine Chapel: The Trials of Christ, The Trials of Moses and The Punishment of the Rebels.

In the following decade political and religious events, such as the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492 and the preaching and following death sentence of Savonarola in 1498 caused Botticelli a spiritual crisis, which reflected also on his artistic production.

The painter died in 1510, and was buried on May 17 in the family tomb in the church of Ognissanti, Florence.


History of the artwork

The Sant'Ambrogio Altarpiece, depicting the Madonna and Child with Saints, was painted by Botticelli around 1470, when the artist was only twenty-five years old.

The altarpiece was located in the church of Sant'Ambrogio in Florence, where it remained until the Suppressions of 1808. First transferred to the Galleria dell'Accademia, it was then definitely moved to the Uffizi Gallery. The presence of the Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian leads to hypothesize a commission on behalf of the Medici family or of the guild Arte dei Medici e Speziali (Physicians and Apocatheries).

It is not certain that the artwork was originally painted for the Church of Sant'Ambrogio, due to the absence of the patron saint in the altarpiece.

This painting was one of Botticelli’s first important commissions. The composition is derived from the San Marco Altarpiece by Fra Angelico (ca. 1440), with a raised marble seat for the Madonna and Child who are surrounded by two groups of Saints standing on either side (from the left, St. Mary Magdalene, St. John the Baptist, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Alexandria) and the Saints Cosmas and Damian kneeling in front in a foreshortened position, highlighting the depth of perspective. As in the painting by Fra Angelico, one of the two Saints is turned towards the spectator, demanding attention, and one of them is turned towards the Virgin.

Documented previous interventions.

In 1882 (Archive of the Florentine Galleries – AGF - ins. 283- inv. n°46) the inspector Gaetano Pieraccioni reported the necessity to intervene on the work. The restorer Oreste Cambi began the restoration six years later: he reinforced the support on the back, inserting wedge shaped inserts in some fissures and in some butterfly inserts, and flattened the blisters and cleavage of ground and paint layers, and retouched the losses along a vertical fissure (A.G.F. Affari dell’anno 1888, folder D, position 4, n°1).

The most recent intervention prior to the OPD restoration was carried out by Stefano Scarpelli in 1992. The wooden support had a long vertical fissure and on the paint film there were extensive repaints and yellowed and altered layers of varnish. The repaints, probably dating back to the 18th century, were upon the face and red robe of the Virgin, and upon the face and body of the Child. Many retouches were present on the whole surface, upon abrasions probably caused by a previous cleaning. On the support, the intervention foresaw the insertion of wedge shaped inserts along the disconnections of the planks. On the colour, a cleaning intervention was carried out, eliminating the thick repaints, retouches and the altered layers of varnish. Filling, inpainting and varnishing completed the intervention.


Artistic technique

The support is made of 5 poplar wood planks glued together, with two crossbars that were originally inserted into metal bridges nailed onto the support.

Along some of the joints of the planks there are strips of canvas, observable in the X-ray.

On the gypsum and animal glue ground layers, the underdrawing was carried out, clearly visible in the Infrared reflectography.

The comparison between the reflectogram investigations, the X-rays, the scanning XRF analysis and the final version of the painting revealed a surprising number of substantial modifications of the composition, an unusual feature in artworks of this period.

The entire perspective construction is realized with many incised lines that are clearly visible both in raking light and in the X-ray.

The underdrawing was realized freehand by the artist mainly with charcoal, and with diluted brushstrokes in certain areas. The investigations allowed to understand the particularity of this painting: the composition was changed considerably by the artist himself, in its perspective construction and in the positions of the figures. The compositional changes were made both during the drawing phase, as well as during painting; the changes done during the application of paint are currently clearly visible on the surface, due to the wearing of the paint layers.

The construction of the composition seems to have been carried out without a clear preliminary project: the artist first began to define the composition of the highly elaborate architecture composition, without allowing space for the characters: this is shown by the presence of many incised lines underneath the main figures.

Botticelli first outlined the perspective context and only later added the characters, in some cases naked, and then completed them with draperies and details. On almost all the figures he made considerable changes, almost as if experimenting directly on the panel the visual effect of the spatial arrangement of the single characters and of the whole composition. The inclination of the face of the Child is thus changed, and the position of his entire figure is modified; the figure of St. John, initially more frontal, is turned towards the Child in the final version. Among the other changes, the position of the arm of St. Francis is moved.

The continuous elaboration of the project was probably due to experimentation needs of the young artist, dealing with his first important commission.

Above the underdrawing, there is an imprimatura layer containing oil and lead white. Above this, the paint layers were applied presumably using egg tempera as the medium and pigments typical of this period. A scanning XRF investigation campaign helped to identify the nature of the pigments used by the artist.

The blues all contain lapis lazuli; the layers take on different shades, as the pigment is mixed with different amounts of lead white. The folds of the Virgin's mantle acquire depth with pure ultramarine blue, whilst the purplish shade of the mantle of Mary Magdalene is obtained with the addition of cinnabar.

The reds mantles of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian are painted with cinnabar, whilst the colder-toned reds are obtained with red-lake.

The greens are obtained with copper-based pigments; the highlights and lighter shades are defined with lead and tin yellow.

The other pigments used include lead white, ochre, earth pigments and carbon black.


Conservation Conditions  

The painting presented many blisters and cleavage in the ground and paint layers along some of the joints of the planks due to tensions of the wooden support.  In some areas the movements of the wood had created disconnections between the planks, causing some losses of ground and paint layers, especially in correspondence of fillings and retouches carried out in previous restoration work. On the painting, especially on the red mantles of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, there were many altered retouches.

The artwork had already revealed signs of damage in the past due to tensions between the plank system and the crosspieces, which had caused cracks along the joints.

During a previous intervention on the support, probably carried out in the 19th century, butterfly inserts had been created, and the original crossbars had been removed and replaced with two new tapered swallowtail crossbeams, inserted in tracks in the panel.

In an intervention of 1992, the restoration work on the support consisted in reconnecting the planks along the joints with wedge shaped inserts, removing the butterfly inserts and reinserting the nineteenth-century crossbars.

Fixing had been carried out on the paint layers, followed by a cleaning intervention that foresaw the removal of extensive repaints mainly on the figures of the Virgin and Child, revealing the underlying original paint layers. Filling and inpainting completed the 1992 intervention.



The OPD restoration project, after a thorough study of the artwork by means of an extensive campaign of investigations, focused on the analysis of the causes of deterioration: the tensions due to the rigid crossbar system, in contrast with the natural tendency to warp of the plank, had created consequences on the ground and paint layers creating cleavage and losses; as already mentioned, this phenomenon had occurred also in the past. The priorities of the project were therefore an intervention on the support and the consequent fixing of the ground and paint layers.

Work on the support consisted firstly in cleaning the edges of the "opened" joints, removing previous fillings and inpainting. Localized paint fixing was carried out both before and after the restoration of the wooden support.

The crossbars were removed from the support, allowing the board more movement, which resulted in a slight curving. The plank edges were realigned after removing the previous wedge inserts along the joints, and were reconnected with small wooden inserts. The existing crossbars were used, after adjusting them to the curving of the board. The dovetail tracks for the crossbars were also adapted with small wooden inserts; the crosspieces were thus reinserted into the support, equipped with an elastic control system.

After these operations it was possible to evaluate the painting as a whole: the artwork, cleaned in 1992, still presented balanced levels, although the varnish had some opaque areas and many retouches had discoloured. It was therefore decided to limit the intervention to a surface cleaning of the varnish, followed by filling and inpainting of the losses along the joints. The old altered retouches were "toned" to the surrounding colours using Gamblin Conservation Colors varnish paints.

A final application of varnish, increasing the saturation of the chromatic layers of the painting, completed the intervention.


Summary Colophon

The restoration was carried out by the Department of Paintings on Panel and Canvas of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro, Florence, in 2018.

Art historical Directors: Marco Ciatti, Cecilia Frosinini
Technical directors and restorers: Luisa Gusmeroli, Patrizia Riitano
Restorer of the wooden support: Ciro Castelli
X-Radiograph: Andrea Cagnini, Daniele Ciappi, Ottavio Ciappi
Vis-NIR Reflectogram: Roberto Bellucci
Micro-SORS measurements (RAMAN spectroscopy): Dipartimento di ingegneria meccanica chimica e dei materiali, Dipartimento di Fisica of Università degli Studi di Cagliari
Photographic documentation and investigations: Roberto Bellucci
X-ray Fluorescence: OPD Scientific Laboratory directed by Giancarlo Lanterna
Scanning X-ray Fluorescence: INFN Firenze, Anna Mazzinghi, Chiara Ruberto, Lisa Castelli