An early sixteenth-century Italian painting, long discussed in the art-historical literature, has now been traced to the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG).
The discovery was made by the Courtauld Institute’s Renaissance specialist Scott Nethersole whilst visiting Breaking Down the Walls earlier this year.
The ISANG, has finally been able to solve an important attribution puzzle regarding one of its earliest gifts and one of the finest works in its historical collection.
The ‘Masterpiece of the Month’ essay series accompanied the Iziko South African National Gallery’s retrospective exhibition Breaking Down the Walls: 150 Years of Art Collecting. As the exhibition comes to a close, Anna Tietze reveals a discovery about the first work featured in this essay series.
The early sixteenth-century tondo, Virgin Adoring the Infant Saviour, with St John and St Joseph was purchased for the gallery with funds provided by Richard Stuttaford, son of the founder of South Africa’s first major department store. Bought from the London dealer David Croal-Thomson, this panel painting arrived in Cape Town in 1920. It was a major acquisition for a cash-strapped gallery that could otherwise not have afforded an original old master work.
But who was the painter of this work? A very worn inscription on the back of the panel claimed that it had once been thought to be by Raphael; this inscription declared, however, that it was now believed to be by the Lombard painter Cesare da Sesto (1477-1523). It was sold as ‘attributed to Cesare da Sesto’ to the South African National Gallery. As the May 2022 Masterpiece of the Month essay noted, however, it is notoriously difficult, sometimes, to be sure of the authorship of old master works. This point was confirmed when The Courtauld Institute’s Renaissance specialist Scott Nethersole visited Breaking Down the Walls earlier this year. Nethersole was doubtful of the Cesare da Sesto attribution and believed that it was instead a work by, or closely associated with, Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507), an older, Florentine artist who had worked with Botticelli and Ghirlandaio and enjoyed a flourishing career in Florence and Rome.[i] A second opinion was sought from Christopher Daly of John Hopkins University and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, who confirmed Nethersole’s view and who believed it may well be an autograph Rosselli. Daly has been able to point to an existing literature on the work which supports the Rosselli attribution and which reveals a longstanding debate as to whether it is largely by the artist or by his workshop.[ii]
An early example of this is a fascinating reference to it by the eminent early twentieth-century connoisseur Bernard Berenson. On the back of a photograph owned by Berenson of the Cape Town tondo, there is a handwritten note by him: ‘Ascr[ibed] to Cesare da Sesto sold 1920 to Cape Town.’ Underneath this he adds: ‘Coismo [sic] Rosselli. Very late if. Not quite.’ Berenson was to classify the painting as Rosselli in the posthumously published Italian Painters of the Renaissance: Florentine School (1963). In 1976, the Italian art historian Anna Maria Giusti connected the painting to another, very similar, Rosselli work in the Museo Diocesano-Palazzo Rospigliosi, in Pistoia, Italy.
While Berenson’s handwritten notes testify to early revisions to the Cesare da Sesto attribution, an additional note on the back of the photograph – simply saying ‘HOMELESS’ – reveals another interesting fact: namely, that no major authorities knew the whereabouts of this painting once it had left for Cape Town in 1920. However scholars of Italian Renaissance art continued to discuss the work from old photographs, and the attribution to Rosselli or his circle, rather than Cesare da Sesto, was now generally agreed: the late Everett Fahy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art listed it (as an autograph Rosselli) in his Cosimo Rosselli: Painter of the Sistine Chapel (2001), while Edith Gabrielli of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome included it as a work from the workshop of Rosselli in two publications: an article on the artist published in 2000 (“L’impresa Sistina e l’ultima ‘maniera’ di Cosimo Rosselli’ in Sisto IV: Le arti a Roma nel Primo Rinasciemtno, ed. F. Benzi, Rome 2000, pp. 203-223, esp. 231, 221 note 110)and, more importantly, her 2007 catalogue Cosimo Rosselli: Catalogo Ragionato.
Even as late as 2007, Gabrielli was working from a scratchy black and white photo of the work; had she had access to a good colour reproduction which revealed its quality, she might have decided it was entirely by the hand of Rosselli himself. But like her fellow Renaissance scholars she was unaware of where in Cape Town the work was housed.
So, when Scott Nethersole saw the work hanging in the gallery’s retrospective this year, it was the conclusion to a long mystery. Some strange omission in the records led to the work disappearing off the radar once it reached Cape Town, but the mystery is now solved. An early sixteenth-century Italian painting, long discussed in the art-historical literature, has now been traced to the Iziko South African National Gallery. The Gallery, meanwhile, has finally been able to solve an important attribution puzzle regarding one of its earliest gifts and one of the finest works in its historical collection.
[i] This included an important commission in the 1480s to decorate a part of the Sistine Chapel.
[ii] With grateful thanks to Christopher Daly for his advice on this work and its literature.