8: Discovery of Botticelli’s "Pala delle Convertite"

As I immersed myself in my research on Botticelli in Florence I trusted in my own intuition, and I thereby resolved to try to give, to the greatest extent possible, proof of those technical idiosyncrasies of Botticelli’s art that I wished to emphasize, in terms of the portion of Botticelli’s art that I had observed closely. I did this by selecting details from his representative works that went along with what I thought and by taking numerous photographs of them. For example, in the case of the masterpiece La Primavera, these features would be the faces and expressions of the goddesses and nymphs, of course, sweet with a flowery spirit; the modeling of their young torsos, seemingly both visible and invisible through their light garments fluttering in the gentle breeze; their white, intertwining arms and the way their slender fingers come together as if amicably entangled; the delight of the nymphs’ white feet, cheerfully running across the grass and treading on the flowers blooming there; and irises, dandelions, poppy anemones, and other spring flowers blooming in a variegated disarray. I was able to reproduce as various large detail photographs these and other such elements of the depiction that I liked, elements which seem to flicker in and out of sight everywhere within the large tableaux of Botticelli’s various masterpieces. In some cases I would specify a full-sized reproduction, and in other cases I would specify a clearly delineated crop. Since some of Botticelli’s works are quite monumental, the grand total of detail photographs minutely cropping the features one by one in this way reached upwards of two hundred prints.

As a result, I was able to make multiple detail photographs that were interesting to a truly unexpected degree, even for me, and so I was really pleasantly surprised. What is more, they also surprised Giacomo, the son of the famous Florentine photographer Brogi, whom I asked to take these detail photographs according to my picky instructions. As he told me, “Our studio regularly takes lots of detail photographs of various famous paintings for scholars from all over the world, but this is absolutely the first time we have had to photograph in such a sensuous, interesting way.” He was terribly impressed, and completely cancelled the photography charge. Without taking any payment for what amounted to two hundred detail photographs, he reproduced them in large form, and furthermore printed them for me. Although this was a great help to an indigent student overseas like myself, in exchange Brogi began to sell the images as his own photography; and since these sold well, it was a fact that they made him a considerable amount of money, as well.

This kind of precise, well-thought-out detail photography of famous paintings, although it has become commonplace nowadays, was in those days largely the first of its kind in the West. As such, not only did it generally receive a great amount of attention, but the detail photographs of Botticelli that came out especially well also received a great amount of praise from Mr. Berenson, and were even popular among my circle of friends engaged in similar research. My closest acquaintance at the time was Sir Kenneth Clark, who would in later years become the director of the National Gallery in London. He took a great interest in these detail photographs I had made, and would later go on to publish Detail, a set of three large volumes comprising a collection of the National Gallery’s famous paintings; in its preface he wrote something to the effect of, “The use of detail photographs to closely examine a famous work—which is something I picked up from the idea of my friend, Yashiro—is a valuable technique indeed.”1 All this being the case, the success to an unexpected degree of the detail photographs I had had made of Botticelli’s works naturally paved the way for the publication of my book, Botticelli.

However, although it would have been one thing if the topic were Eastern art, the fact was that it was inconceivable for an unknown researcher from the East, such as myself in those days, to come to a major center for Western art like London and attempt to publish a work on a big established topic in Western art. And, of course, there was no way I was able to entertain such notions at the beginning. As for what gave me the resolve to do this—it was actually because of a trivial incident, something that occurred that hit home for me.

One day, when it was just Mr. Berenson and I and we were talking about my work, I said, “I am thinking of putting out a book on Botticelli someday,” whereupon Mr. Berenson said, “That is fine, but you should make it a small book, in which you write as simply as possible your thoughts on appreciating Botticelli as someone from the East,” to which he added, “since no one would think to learn about Botticelli from a Japanese, you know.” This comment, given innocently and as if it were a matter of course, was in truth what made me make a vow in my youthful heart to someday study a great deal and publish in Europe a grand, full-blown work on Botticelli. My reaction of “I’ll be damned!” to this, and the way I was stirred to action, came to sustain me during times of various hardships I later endured for the sake of the realization of this vow.

If one is serious about their studies, however, then there are also times in life when fortune unexpectedly calls. One such time was when I was able to unearth a large Botticelli-related discovery completely by chance in London. When Botticelli was in the prime of his youth, there occurred in Florence a large incident wherein a great number of prostitutes underwent religious conversion all at once and became nuns. These nuns erected a church called “Sant’ Elizabetta delle Convertite” in Florence, and Botticelli was chosen to paint the church’s altarpiece. This church continued to exist in Florence until the beginning of the nineteenth century, but once it ceased to function as a church the whereabouts of its altarpiece became unknown. And at a time when Botticelli researchers across the globe were all going around searching for this important work, by chance I happened across a large work that made me wonder, is this it?

One day, when I went to London’s National Gallery for one reason or another, the assistant director, Mr. Collins Baker, handed me a bunch of photographs, since he had known for some time that I was enthusiastically going around collecting materials for research on Botticelli, and generously said to me, “These are photographs of Botticelli-related works that have been sent in from various places asking us to purchase the paintings for the National Gallery. They are all nothing but boring pieces, and since there is no need to purchase them we will return the photographs to their owners soon, but seeing as how you are a Botticelli specialist, you might find something useful for your research among them. Take a look.” Indeed, they were all trivial works, which looked like Botticelli but were not the real thing—until my heart leapt at the sight of a certain picture. In addition to the surface of the painting being terribly stained, it even bore the mark of what was clearly a more recent fake signature. And yet because there were also aspects that suggested something more in terms of pedigree, I asked about the painting’s owner. When I visited the place, it turned out to be a lower-class shop selling used frames in a back alley near Covent Garden. I entered the shop at once, and when I asked about the painting, the shopkeeper said, “A nobleman said he would buy the painting, so we’ve brought it to his estate. But he still hasn’t bought it, even though many days have already gone by.” To which I said, “I would very much like to see the painting. If it happens to fit my liking, I might very well buy it.” I thereby urged him to show me the painting. My suggesting at this time that “if it is a good painting, I might buy it” was not necessarily entirely irresponsible on my part. I intend to touch on this again later, but at any rate, I eventually got the used frame dealer to take me, and, one day, I went to the estate of the nobleman who was supposedly on the verge of purchasing the painting. The nobleman in question was Viscount Lee of Fareham, a prominent member of the nobility who had served as First Lord of the Admiralty of the United Kingdom and who donated the private retreat of the British Prime Minister, i.e. the famous Chequers estate, to the nation for such use. I felt immensely awkward, seeing as how I visited this grand estate led by the aforementioned shabby old man of the used frame shop, but once I was allowed to see the actual picture, I at once grew extremely confident. Although it was in bad condition, I was immediately able to surmise that this painting was without a doubt the altarpiece that Botticelli must have painted for the church of the nuns during the early part of his career. As proof, Mary Magdalene—a former prostitute who afterward became a disciple of Christ, was saved, confined herself to the desert in austere penance, then died and rose to Heaven—flanks the central image of this large picture that takes the Trinity as its theme. The female saint is remarkably depicted as a curious ascetic figure, and a strangely mystical one: her skin has been burned and its color darkened by the sun, and, moreover, she is nude, and her beautiful golden hair has grown long and covers her nude body. This, among other aspects, led me to strengthen my conviction all the more that this was the altarpiece of that church.

Thereupon Viscount Lee of Fareham made his appearance. He had looks befitting the English nobility, and yet also had the sharpness of a Navy man. The used frame dealer had apparently announced that he had brought a Botticelli specialist introduced to him by the National Gallery, and so, when the Viscount noticed it was a neophyte from the East who was barely over thirty, he looked disappointed, as if his expectation had widely missed the mark. Since that annoyed me a little, and since, above all, this was the moment that I had begun to feel confident that this was a big discovery, I became at that point completely excited and, drawing on my store of knowledge, I let forth an outpouring of explanatory data about the provenance of the painting, for example, or about interpretations of its themes. As a result, the Viscount looked completely befuddled. However, although this is something that I learned later after we came to be on friendlier terms, the Viscount was a great collector of paintings by nature, to the extent that he was constructing in his villa a large gallery for his own collection; and not only was he quite well-informed about Italian art himself, but he also enjoyed the discovery of a good bargain, and was apparently the type to thoroughly investigate matters of various kinds. And so, he seemed to have thought that this explanation given by me, this neophyte from the East who went on and on in his excitement, was not altogether absurd, and gradually started to ask questions to test me. For example, he noted that in large letters “S. B.,” that is, Sandro Botticelli’s signature written as the initials of his name, had been put into this painting, and he brought out the question of what its significance was. I am all the more in my element when it comes to a specialized question like this, and so I gave a detailed response in high spirits: “In Botticelli’s era, painters do not inscribe their names and so forth on pictures of religious subjects. They say that Botticelli, too, only once in his entire life inscribed his name on a particular religious painting. So, in the case of the signature on this painting, judging from the style of the letters this is without a doubt a fake signature added sometime during the nineteenth century or later. If you are inclined to think that I do not tell the truth, try wiping it with alcohol—it will vanish right away.” And so, at any rate, I asked him to allow me to take large photographs of this painting, and, in the highest of spirits, I returned home. On the way home, I made a show of talking big to the aforementioned used frame dealer, telling him that if the Viscount does not buy the painting, he should take it back immediately and bring it to me, since I will buy it.

After a few days had passed, the used frame dealer, looking crestfallen, visited me at my lodgings and said, “After we met I visited the Viscount and asked him to please return the painting. He asked why, so I answered that the young Japanese from earlier says he’ll buy it. Then the Viscount said that if that’s the case he’ll buy it right away, and beat you to the purchase.” When I said to him that if that is the case then he must be satisfied with the sale, he looked disappointed. It seems as though he was surprised by my excited show of eloquence the other day in which I vigorously explained various aspects of the painting before the Viscount, and perhaps he thought to himself that he ought to have sold it at a much higher price, or perhaps it was something else. For my part—although this is something that I had intended to explain later—the truth is that I had begun to harbor an aspiration to locate an authentic Botticelli during my stay in Europe, have someone in Japan buy it, and bring it back to Japan with me. There was no way that something like an authentic Botticelli would be an easy find, and even if one were to be found, the chances that someone with money in Japan would be able to purchase it with ease would be slim, due to the fact that, under normal circumstances, it would necessarily fetch an outrageous price.  But, I thought, in a situation like the one at hand, wherein no one has yet noticed and the discovery is mine alone, the price would no doubt be absurdly low, and so I—even I—would be able to make a move for the sake of Japan. In this case, however, I ultimately wound up missing the rare chance to buy a major work by Botticelli for Japan’s sake.

Some time passed, and then I took a photographer with me to take photographs of the painting and went out to the Viscount’s estate. This time, the Viscount’s attitude had changed considerably, and he seemed to now treat me more or less as a specialist. Whether or not that was the case, the task of moving this massive altarpiece, which was painted on large, heavy wooden panels, and adequately taking sectional photographs as I had envisioned turned out to be no simple task but a major undertaking, and the elderly Viscount himself emerged to direct his manservants to assist us. That was truly a great help. The aforementioned fake signature of “S. B.” in large letters that was on the surface of the painting had already been removed by the Viscount, which I found amusing. After that we successfully took the photographs. I needed to repeatedly examine the painting’s surface so that I could write this new discovery up in a paper and get it published, and so I went from time to time to the Viscount’s estate. One day in the midst of this, the Viscount invited me to his villa in Richmond Park on the outskirts of London. The villa was an old, refined, small building. According to what I was later told, this was the famous White Lodge, an old, historic piece of architecture, whose name could perhaps be translated into Japanese as the “white village-manor,” and where the famous Prince of Wales was born; he would later ascend the throne [as Edward VIII], then take the title of the Duke of Windsor after his abdication. I took a meal there, joined also by the Lady Lee, a kind, elderly woman, after which I was shown to the part of the villa that had been made into a picture gallery. The aforementioned altarpiece of the church of Sant’ Elizabetta delle Convertite by Botticelli had been hung in a prominent place in the gallery. I flushed with feelings of pride and happiness, and yet my paper was not yet published, and I could not make sense of why the Viscount had suddenly warmed to me to such an extent. He then confessed to me the following. Namely, he had unbeknownst to me sent the pictures I had had made to a prominent specialist in Italian painting whom he trusted—it was apparently Professor Adolfo Venturi of the University of Rome, with whom I also had various connections as a specialist—and solicited the professor’s opinion, whereupon Professor Venturi responded in agreement with my opinion. In other words the Viscount, while feigning to agree with my opinions, was secretly apprehensive, and thus, without informing me, took it upon himself to use the photographic materials I had made to discuss the matter with other people. As for me, I understood that he had kept something from me, which was somewhat unpleasant, but even this, when one stops to think about it, is not unreasonable, and since the experts with whom he had secretly discussed the matter had come to agree with me, I thought to myself that that was good enough. But it did arouse in me the sort of deep feelings that a young patriot feels, such as, “What is really necessary for us Japanese is the advancement of our cultural position and the level of trust in us abroad.”

In this way, the discovery of the Botticelli became the beginning of a relationship with the Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham, and we grew very close. I also obtained the convenience of being allowed to look whenever I pleased at the numerous masterpieces of Western painting and other precious artworks held by the Viscount. I always very much looked forward, while the Viscountess was still alive, to our meeting again every time I went to London. And this eminent member of the English nobility was always kind enough to introduce me as an expert scholar, no matter the context, which proved exceedingly useful later for my various research endeavors in Britain. After the Lord and Lady eventually passed away in their old age, a good deal of time passed, and one year, when I was in Canada—it was the city of Toronto, if I recall correctly—there was a small museum displaying a collection of jewels and finely crafted works of precious metal from among the various treasures of the estate of the Viscount, which I went to see. I did not see, however, the Viscount’s massive collection of old paintings at the museum, and was not sure where they had gone.

Let me now extend my discussion of the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Botticelli’s altarpiece of the church of Sant’ Elizabetta delle Convertite a bit further. It was known from before that, among the great number of old Western paintings donated by Mr. [John G.] Johnson to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there is a series of four small pictures depicting the life of the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute and female follower of Christ. I recalled this, and it occurred to me that these might very well be the predella of the Botticelli altarpiece that I had newly discovered. The predella comprises the oblong narrative pictures affixed below the altarpiece; they usually depict explanatory narratives related to the altarpiece. And when one lined these four pictures up and added their lengths together, the total length matched perfectly with the width of the Lord Lee’s newly discovered altarpiece. Not only did the fact that they rendered as their theme the story of the faith of a prostitute-turned-saint make an ideal fit with their being hung beneath the altarpiece of a church built by prostitutes who had converted and become nuns, but the fact that the very figure of Mary Magdalene as an ascetic was prominently depicted in the altarpiece itself, as one of the attendant holy figures delineating the Holy Trinity in the center of the image, also made a perfect fit. This also had significance with regards to resolving the issue of the attribution of these four linked paintings. Long ago, none other than Mr. Berenson traced the attribution of these four paintings back to the work of an anonymous student of Botticelli—he has been tentatively given the name Amico di Sandro. But once it was concluded that these paintings were the predella of the church of Sant’ Elizabetta delle Convertite’s altarpiece, it was most natural to trace at least the idea and compositional plan behind these attached pictures back to the creator of the entire altarpiece, Botticelli himself. It was unavoidable that the previous theory was greatly trivialized, namely, it was likely that some student, probably the student Berenson had tentatively called Amico di Sandro, had merely carried out the work of completing these pictures in accordance with this compositional plan he had been given. Since this meant that these pictures in Philadelphia would not at all be seen merely as the work of one of Botticelli’s students but would be directly connected to Botticelli himself at least in terms of conception and compositional plan, they were very happy indeed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Western painting department about my discovery in London, and later, a few years before the present day, when I visited the museum with my wife for the first time in a long time, the former director of the Western painting department had been promoted to the position of director of the entire museum, and he gathered his associates and held a reception at which I was the guest of honor.

Thus, after various preparations, my article on this new discovery was completed, and I published it in The Burlington Magazine, one of Britain’s major research journals of the fine arts. In its appearance there, there was an amusing if small mistake. This newly discovered Botticelli painting, as I have already explained, depicted the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; the figure of Christ on the cross is prominently depicted in the center of the vertically oriented picture, and behind him, to indicate his holiness, is depicted a vertically oblong “almond-shaped aureola”—what is called a “mandorla” in Italian. This mandorla-shaped aureola is composed of a gathering of cherubs. In my paper, it was necessary for me to discuss the method of portraying the cherubs comprising the mandorla in terms of the formal traits of the painting, and so in my manuscript I wrote “the cherubs of the Mandorla.” In the paper as it was printed, this seems to have been altered by the magazine’s editors without my consent to “the cherubs with the mandoline,” which implied that the cherubs were holding a mandolin. It completely surprised me to see this in print. Nowhere in the painting is there depicted a cherub holding a mandolin or anything like that, and so I did not know what to make of this. If I were to guess, perhaps it was that an editor of the magazine did not know the Italian technical art term “mandorla,” and thus conjectured that it probably was some mistake for a similar word, seeing as how the author of the paper was a no-name Asian, and, without notifying me at all, took it upon himself to change the phrase to “the cherubs with the mandoline”—the instrument, that is—and print it that way. As a matter of scholarship, I felt that this was a little too reckless, but when one is working abroad there are relationships in which one is unable to speak as they would like, after all, and although there are often things that get on one’s nerves, there would be no end if one were to become angry at each and every one of them. What is more, in the case of this paper, the journal in which it was published came out after I had returned to Italy from London and had my hands full with work for the publication of my book on Botticelli, and even if I were to get angry, nothing would come of it at this point; and since writing an angry letter was also more trouble than it was worth, I ultimately left the matter as is.

Anyhow, even if there was a certain amount of such unpleasantness, my paper in The Burlington Magazine furnished the scholarly world with a large topic of interest, due to the fact that it signaled the discovery of Botticelli’s altarpiece of the church of Sant’ Elizabetta delle Convertite, which had been an outstanding issue in the field. Furthermore, as I have already explained, it was proven that the small linked pictures of the story of Mary Magdalene, which had gone to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in America and become the topic of much discussion, comprised the predella of the newly discovered Botticelli altarpiece, and it also became clear that they were made by Botticelli’s studio and that one of his students, likely Amico di Sandro, helped in their production. The paper thus also had an impact on the field of research on Western art in America, and produced for me various favorable consequences.

Since such was the case, the extent to which this discovery proved useful in furthering my later research on Botticelli was unfathomable. I was praised by Mr. Berenson, who gave such praise sparingly, and from that time onward I also came to be accepted in general circles as a Botticelli expert. I gained the trust of someone like the Lord Lee, the painting’s owner, in the highest echelons of English nobility, as well, and afterward the Viscount would always back me despite whatever may arise, something that was also a great aid in terms of my later research. If I had not accomplished something like this to make me stand out as an expert Botticelli researcher, things like the publication of my large book of Botticelli research would have been inconceivable. It was different from the state of the publishing industry in Japan today, wherein anyone can print any sort of handsome color compilation, and I cannot help but think that one of Britain’s dependable publishing houses in particular would not have lent an earnest ear to the wish of someone from the East such as myself to publish a work on Italian art. In this way, the discovery of the Pala delle Convertite came to stand out as an academic accomplishment of mine, and had the practical effect of paving the way for later.

1.The exact quote is slightly different: “Although the beauty of such detail seems obvious to us, they had been taken for scientific purposes for many years before anyone thought of reproducing them for their own sakes, and I believe it was the Japanese critic, Yukio Yashiro, who first used them as aids to appreciation in his book on Botticelli;” Kenneth Clark, One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery, London 1938, 8. [Note by Peter Bernard]