A note on the back states that this Madonna and Child was identified as coming from the workshop of Jacopo della Guercia [sic] circa 1450: that the identification was made by a ‘Professor Pollack’ and that the group was a gift to a member of the vendor’s family from D’Arcy Osborne, the 12th Duke of Leeds [1884-1964] - who served as Ambassador to the Holy See from 1936-1947.
The unusual spelling of the ‘surname’ of Jacopo as Guercia is now actually believed to be correct, meaning that the sculptor was son of a woman with a squint, rather than -more romantically - ‘of the oak-tree’ (Quercia). ‘Professor Pollack’ in Rome at this period must mean the connoisseur-dealer Lodovico [Ludwig] Pollak, author of the de luxe Catalogue of Italian Bronzes in the Barsanti Collection, Rome, 1922. The attribution was at the time, therefore, authoritative: by dating it c.1450, and giving it to ‘the workshop’, Pollak meant to exclude it from being autograph, for he must have known that the sculptor died twelve years earlier.
The Duke of Leeds, KCMG (1884-1964), a British diplomat known between 1943 and 1963 as Sir D’Arcy Osborne [Wikipedia] seems to be just the sort of - more or less ‘ex-pat’ Catholic gentleman - of high diplomatic standing in the Vatican, who might have managed to obtain a genuine example of 15th century sculpture. When Italy declared war on the UK in 1940, Osborne, accredited to the Holy See but living in Italian territory, moved inside the Vatican according to arrangements made under the Lateran Treaty and would be immured inside the Vatican until the liberation of Rome in 1944. There he was creditably involved with helping to save around 4,000 Jewish refugees and Allied POW escapees; as well as participating in a plot with some German generals to overthrow Hitler in 1940.
The fact that the sculpture is made of plaster implies the existence of an ’original’ perhaps now lost, and probably modelled in terracotta and maybe even carved in the more demanding material of marble: like the present replica these would have been painted in pleasing natural colours. But ours is not to be found among the standard repertory of such Madonna reliefs, which were mandatory for private devotions in any middle- or upper- class lady’s bedchamber, in order to intercede for aid with conception and childbirth. The series started with alternative compositions by and after Ghiberti or Donatello. But, to modern eyes, the elegant, ‘fashionably’ elongated, oval face of this young lady, with her straight, Grecian nose, rosebud lips, high-arching eyebrows and very high forehead, framed in neatly curled ringlets of hair and a light veil, suggests an artist of the generation after them or Della Quercia, one that invented the ‘Sweet style’ of the mid-century (See Charles Avery, Florentine Renaissance Sculpture, London/New York, 1970, chapter 5). These pioneers were closely followed by Desiderio da Settignano and Antonio Rossellino; and it is with the latter that the closest analogies for the general style and particular features of the Leeds Madonna are to be found.
Several of his Madonnas have survived in marble and the one in the chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in San Miniato al Monte, Antonio’s masterpiece in this field, was completed in 1466.
It is difficult to compare sculptures in crystalline, white marble with those that have been naturalistically painted and so a comparison is made here with a painted excerpt from the Portugal Madonna that had been acquired by Conte Umberto Serristori of Florence from an antique dealer in Perugia in 1915 (last sold by Sotheby’s, Florence, on 6 June 2007, lot 291).
The ‘aristocratic’ facial type that Rossellino employed for the Queen of Heaven in that rendering is also to be found in a marble panel probably originating from the Medici collection, but since 1626 in Innsbruck and Vienna, and in the Leeds Madonna.
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