'Lost' Madonna masterpiece with scandalous past for sale

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The Independent Online

When Andrea del Sarto unveiled his painting of the Madonna and Child, Florence was abuzz with rumours that the sitter was his mistress.

When Andrea del Sarto unveiled his painting of the Madonna and Child, Florence was abuzz with rumours that the sitter was his mistress.

Nearly 500 years later the painting is generating debate again, resurfacing on the market after languishing unacknowledged in a private American collection for decades.

The Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist - on sale for £2.7m - is thought to show Lucrezia del Fede as the model. She eventually married the artist but had allegedly started an affair with him before the unexplained death of her husband.

Clovis Whitfield, of Whitfield Fine Art in London, which is selling the work, thought to be painted in 1513, said: "It seems there was a certain amount of overlap with the husband, who eventually discreetly made his exit, leaving the field open for Andrea del Sarto to pursue his love in a more respectable way."

Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century biographer of great artists, wrote: "When this was known in Florence, it turned the love that he had been borne by his friends to hate, as it seemed that this stain obscured for a while the honour and glory of such a great talent ... he had earlier been sought out by his friends, now he was shunned."

But Mr Whitfield said that Vasari toned down his description of the scandal in the second edition of his work, Lives of the Painters. "People had come to accept that artists were allowed a little licence," he said then.

Andrea, son of a tailor and pupil to Piero di Cosimi, lived from 1486 to 1531, and was famed as one of the most important painters of the Renaissance, influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. He earned the title "Il Pittore senza Errori", the faultless painter. Lucrezia was the model for several of his works.

He became so famous that, in 1518, he was invited by Francis I of France to the court at Fontainebleau. The following year he was given cash to buy paintings in Italy for the palace but, according to Vasari, he was persuaded by Lucrezia to build himself a house in Florence with the money and never dared return to France.

But Lucrezia proved a hard-hearted lover who bullied her husband's apprentices, which for a time included Pontormo, Rosso and Vasari, and failed to care for him properly during his final fatal illness in 1531. Details of the story of Andrea del Sarto and Lucrezia inspired Andrea del Sarto, by the 19th-century poet, Robert Browning.

This painting, now on show in New Bond Street, was much copied but the original had been "lost" for decades. It was recently discovered in the private collection in America and Mr Whitfield was consulted about suspicions that it was indeed by Andrea del Sarto. He agreed, and Professor John Shearman of Harvard University, the greatest Andrea expert, confirmed his finding.

Mr Whitfield said: "It's a picture that could certainly hang in any of the great museums of the world. It's a rare and unusual find. There's always great emotion in realising that something that was famous once can be famous again."

Mr Whitfield added: "It is extraordinary to think that there are [artworks of the quality and rarity of] Andrea del Sarto that can still be bought. We're lucky in London that apart from being able to see Raphaels in the National Gallery, you can go up the road and see some of his great contemporaries on sale. This does have tremendous qualities. That really shone through. It is very exciting."