The painting known as Smeralda Bandinelli was first attributed to Botticelli in 1841, and confirmed as the work of the artist in the 1930s. The lady looks out from an upper storey window, directly at the viewer. The composition enhances the power of her gaze. The diagonals of the window ledge, shutter, and shadows all converge on her face, while her right pupil is located near the vertical centre-line. In 15th century Florence, lowered eyes signified modesty and obedience in women. The Franciscan San Bernardino of Siena urged women to, ‘bury [their] eyes’. Later moralists, including Savonarola, echoed his view. Botticelli’s painting challenges these conventions. The perceived boldness of the lady’s glance may have led to the vandalism of her right eye, which, together with her mouth, has been scored through by an unknown hand.
The lady’s white cap has been re-painted, possibly by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who owned the painting in 1869-80. Only remnants of the original paint survive at its lower edge. The worn inscription on the sill is also a later addition. It identifies the sitter as Smeralda Bandinelli, born around 1439 and the wife of Viviano de’ Brandini, whose grandson was the well-known Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli. It was probably added in the early 1600s by a member of Bandinelli’s family, who falsified many documents to exaggerate his family’s noble genealogy.
The painting has had several owners. Dante Gabriel Rossetti purchased the painting from Christie’s for the small sum of £20 in 1869. Perhaps the painting appealed to him because, over the previous eight years, he had often experimented with portraying single, half-length, female figures himself. After buying the Botticelli portrait, Rossetti began to reference and imitate the work repeatedly in his own pictures. Elements such as the diaphanous overgown, the long-fingered hands and the direct gaze recur in the multiple versions of Rossetti’s La Pia de’ Tolomei, La Donna della Finestra, and Proserpine, and a chalk drawing of 1870, Silence.
In making this drawing, Rossetti seems to be trying to discover what kind of artist Botticelli is. This was something not yet well established in 1870, the year of Walter Pater’s ‘A Fragment on Sandro Botticelli’, the first full article on the artist. After several centuries of relative neglect, Botticelli’s work was enthusiastically championed and celebrated by English critics including Walter Pater and John Ruskin between 1870-80. Botticelli exerted lasting influence on artists associated with the Aesthetic Movement, including Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. The critic Henry Horne, sceptical of what he perceived to be uncritical adoration, referred to ‘the peculiarly English cult of Botticelli, which now became a distinctive trait of a phase of thought and taste … as odd and extravagant as any of our odd and extravagant time’ (Horne, 1908).
Rossetti sold the painting in 1880 to the Anglo-Greek stockbroker Constantine Ionides, who had commissioned Rossetti’s large painting of The Day Dream for 700 guineas. The artist exulted to his friend and model Jane Morris:
‘I have turned dealer! … The idea of selling pictures you don’t have to paint is certainly a very great one.’
In 1900, Ionides gave his collection of 1,138 pictures, drawings and prints, ‘for the benefit of the nation to be kept … as one separate collection’, in the recently renamed Victoria and Albert Museum.
This article draws on catalogue essays by Mark Evans, Elizabeth Prettejohn and Stephen Calloway.
Find more about this painting and Botticelli’s artistic influence in the exhibition catalogue.