Church kisses goodbye to windfall as Donatello work goes for £3.5m

When the parishioners of San Giovanni Battista church near Padua needed a new organ just over a century ago, they sold a terracotta relief of the Madonna and Child to pay for it.

But however much the organ cost in 1902, the exchange now looks a poor one. For that terracotta relief was by the early Italian Renaissance master Donatello and is now set to sell this month for up to $6m (£3.5m). The work, known as the Borromeo Madonna, after the Borromeo family, who great Italian art patrons and commissioned every major work of art in most of the churches of Padua, is expected to inspire competitive bidding at Sotheby's in New York on 26 January.

There is only one Donatello in a public art collection in the United States and nearly all the others either remain in the churches for which they were made or in major museums in Europe. The provenance of this particular work was lost for many years. It was so covered in dirt and layers of stucco and paint that it was identified only as "circle of Donatello" the last time it came up for auction in 1990 and did not sell. Recent cleaning revealed its beauty while new research established its origins. Anthony Radcliffe, keeper emeritus of sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, said it was "distinctly Donatello".

Margaret Schwartz, Sotheby's senior vice-president, said: "Donatello is without question one of the greatest sculptors that ever lived. The present work showcases his extraordinary technique and unique ability to illustrate emotion and realism in a very shallow space. The sale of this masterpiece presents a remarkable opportunity for institutions and private collectors alike." To be fair to the church officials in Padua, they were sufficiently fond of the rare work that they had a copy made in plaster which remains in situ to this day. The copy repeats the exact details of the sculpture, leaving no doubt that the copy was made from this relief.

The original was executed for an earlier church in Lissaro di Mestrino, outside Padua, in about 1450, at a time when the patronage of the church belonged exclusively to the Borromeo family, one of the oldest patrician families in Lombardy.

Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, who came to be known as Donatello, was born in Florence in 1386 and trained in the studio of the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti from 1404-07. After several early commissions, he left Florence for Padua. He returned to Florence later in his life, where he died in 1466.

He was hugely important in stimulating the development of realism in Italian painting, notably in the work of the great Paduan artist Andrea Mantegna. This work is said to demonstrate many of the hallmarks of Donatello's style and the figures are similar to those in other, better known works. The way the veil falls over the Madonna's head resembles a terracotta Madonna in the Victoria and Albert Museum, while the Christ child is very similar to the child in the Courajod Madonna in the Louvre in Paris.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?