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Botticelli's long-hidden madonna and child

While analyzing an artist's stylistic development, art historians now and then reach for words that are adequate to express some essence of the artist. It can be like a flash of poetic insight voiced in a laboratory.

Botticelli scholar Ronald Lightbown writes of the 15th-century Florentine master's "matchless precision of eloquence." Frederick Hartt, in "A History of Italian Renaissance Art," talks of "the incomparable delicacy of Botticelli's line."

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Sandro Botticelli (1444/45-1510) was greatly admired in Florence during his lifetime. But in his last years his work started to look primitive compared with such rising stars as Leonardo and Raphael. The following centuries were unkind to his reputation until - in the mid-19th century - his extraordinary individuality was again recognized. His linear refinement and pursuit of a stylized beauty appealed to the "Pre-Raphaelite" artists emulating early Renaissance art. The 20th century has not returned him to obscurity.

When Lightbown compiled his comprehensive study of Botticelli, first published in 1978, he says he "looked at over 700 works" by the master. But they did not include "The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child" (at right), painted between 1485 and 1495. Since 1859, this painting has been hidden away in a private Scottish collection, at Gosford House, seat of the Earls of Wemyss and March.

Never reproduced before this year, the picture, a variant on one of Botticelli's central themes, was exhibited publicly only three times in the 19th century and once in the 20th (1957). It was, however, known to prominent 19th-century critics and artists.

It has now been bought by the National Galleries of Scotland, in Edinburgh. After cleaning and restoration, the painting will go on a celebratory tour of Scotland before returning to Edinburgh as a prized possession.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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