LONDON — The discovery of a lost work of art always causes a stir, whatever the circumstances (for example, the Picasso spotted in Imelda Marco’s house in May 2022). It is an event celebrated by both art history and the art market, with auction prices reflect this. Discover a “sleeper” in a dark place, perhaps hidden under paintor by one of the most famous artists of all time (um), is an irresistible pursuit for many eagle-eyed art dealers; the BBC built a whole series around it in False or Fortune. The financial element, however, can be uneasy, with the markup offering a point of contention.
In March 2022, Colnaghi, a commercial gallery founded in 1760 and with branches in London, New York and Madrid, announced a new exhibition championing the still lifes of female painters, Forbidden fruit: female still life. During its preparation, a painting appeared which could be the ultimate “sleeper” and which is now the star attraction of the exhibition. “The Annunciation” (1677) by Caterina Angela Pierozzi depicts the busts of Gabriel and the Virgin, framed in a gilt frame bearing the artist’s name, birthplace and date, surrounded by carefully observed botanical studies comprising irises, tulips, hyacinths, peonies and lilies intertwined throughout the border in an opulent display of disegno, the strong design element perpetuated in 17th century Florence. Upon careful observation, an underdrawing is excitingly visible. It reveals a lively, confident linework beneath the color applied by a brush that was perhaps only a hair or two thick. This nimble touch extends to rendering the hair in barely discernible points. Also noteworthy is its contemporary frame, constructed in gold metalwork and gleaming blue glass; the reverse shows the vellum corners folded in place and the spine secured by the characteristic irregularity of handmade metal screws.
Biographical details of Pierozzi are scarce; she is documented as working for the Medici Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere, patron of female artists. This miniature would be derived from a 14th century fresco in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, the design of which was tightly controlled by the Medici family, who are documented to have commissioned copies in various formats. We also know from a biographical dictionary of Florentine artists compiled by Filippo Baldinucci, who worked at the Medici court, that she was married to the painter Michelangelo Corsi and was probably trained from an early age by his uncle. More remarkably, she was one of only two female artists accepted into the Accademia del Disegno in the 17th century – the other being, of course, Artemisia Gentileschi.
In recent years, many galleries and museums have revisited unsung female contributions to art history, with major exhibitions dedicated to Gentileschi, as well as the Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier. The ascendancy of the artists is understandable given the surprisingly consistent quality of the painting, confirmed by major exhibitions in Antwerp in 2018 and London in 2020, respectively, and strong performances at auction. Superficially, therefore, it can be difficult to compare the modest scale and format of Pierozzi’s miniature with the powerful oil-paint works of other artists. Coupled with a lack of pre-2020 provenance – which, despite the buyer’s apparent best efforts, as Colnaghi told me, remains minimal – viewers may be surprised by buyer markup 7,800 Euros purchase price at Millon at Colnaghi’s “six-figure” guide price, especially given the complete lack of a comparative canon, or indeed any extant work by the artist. However, as Colnaghi rightly states, the overwhelming significance this piece holds for the history of art “cannot be overstated”.
While many works by newly discovered female artists have been the result of reattributions, as in the case of Wautier and Gentileschi – even within Colnaghi’s exhibition this is a reattribution of an important work by Fede Galizia – this piece represents the exceptional rarity of discovering the “first” work, and thus first revealing the artist’s style to the world. There are few, if any, examples of this phenomenon in recent art history.
In the text on Pierozzi provided for the broadcast, by Dr Eve Straussman-Planzer and Dr Sheila Barker, the latter reveals that she discovered a birth certificate for Pierozzi, as well as proof of payment by Grand Prince Ferdinand (to be published in a future article). Barker also published a recent text on Gentileschi, which specifically invites readers to draw on existing knowledge about the artist, combined with new attributions, to continue the process of reconstructing his biography. This miniature also represents a cornerstone on which to build. Art history is a living thing, and events like this are key milestones in its progression. It is encouraging to learn from Colnaghi that interested buyers have included institutions; having the Pierozzi publicly visible, rather than retreating into the obscurity of private property, allows art history to develop.
Forbidden fruit: female still life continues at the Colnaghi Gallery (26 Bury Street, London, England) until June 24. The exhibition was organized by the gallery with Professor Alberto Cottino.